Hearing set on evidence tampering in state drug labStill no arrests; Chief Medical examiner remains suspended
In an effort to answer questions surrounding tainted drug evidence discovered in the state testing lab, legislators are holding a hearing April 30 with the heads of two departments.
Safety and Homeland Security Secretary Lewis Schiliro and Health and Social Services Secretary Rita Landgraf will brief legislators on evidence tampering in the Medical Examiner’s Office during a Senate Public Safety Committee meeting.
“These are serious issues,” said committee Chairman Sen. Robert Marshall, D-Wilmington West. “This hearing will give us a clear-eyed analysis of the situation and, hopefully, offer policy recommendations.”
Delaware State Police and the Attorney General's Office have been investigating the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner since February, after tainted evidence was discovered during a Kent County drug trial in January.
Since then, the Controlled Substances Laboratory that was responsible for drug evidence under the Office of Chief Medical Examiner has been closed. NMS labs in Willow Grove, Pa., is now testing Delaware's drug evidence.
Investigators are examining nearly 20,000 bags of evidence to determine whether evidence was compromised and how many court cases, both open and closed, may have been affected.
No one has yet been arrested in the tampering, but Chief Medical Examiner Richard Callery was suspended with pay from his $198,000 job Feb. 25. Remaining lab employees have been reassigned to other positions in the Office of Chief Medical Examiner, police said.
Sussex County defense attorney John Brady said there are 63 court cases statewide that have been affected by the drug tampering scandal, but he expects the number to reach triple digits. The lab breach has tainted all evidence dating back to 2010, he said.
“The recent revelation continues to undermine the reliability of the OCME handling drug evidence,” Brady said.
Brady also said it is clear that the thefts took place after drugs were tested in the lab and before they were returned to police custody.
In Sussex County, nine drug trials were put on hold for a month after State Prosecutor Kathleen Jennings asked for and was granted a stay of all Superior Court cases statewide. She recently requested an extension, but it was denied by the court president.
“We're approaching May when the nine cases will be continued,” Brady said.
Brady said it would not surprise him if the legislature reassigns the handling of drug evidence from the Department of Health and Social Services, under which the lab currently operates, to the Department of Homeland Security.
Speaker of the House Pete Schwartzkopf, D-Rehoboth Beach, said he has heard no discussion about moving the drug testing lab out of DHSS.
It would be difficult to move from a medical standpoint, although Homeland Security is better suited to handle evidence, he said.
Rep. Stephen Smyk, R-Milton, said he also has heard nothing about moving the drug lab.
Smyk said, “I hope that the answers lay within policy changes instead of new laws.”
Schwartzkopf said he is largely concerned with how the Chief Medical Examiner's Office has been operating, particularly since it has been reported that Callery engages in outside work. A criminal investigation into whether he misused state funds while working as a private contractor is underway as well as an internal investigation by DHSS human resources.
“What we have is a loosely run ship,” Schwartzkopf said. “With all the outside work he was doing, he wasn't in Delaware a lot.”
DHSS Director of Communications Jill Fredel would not comment whether DHSS knew Callery was working as a contract pathologist and as a defense expert-for-hire because it is part of an internal Human Relations investigation.
She also did not respond to a question of whether Callery had exceeded his paid time off from the state.