Members of Colorado’s legal defense community are angrily abuzz over reports that 1,700 blood samples from accused DUI suspects must be retested due to incompetence at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) toxicology laboratory. And though CDPHE spin doctors have tried to put the blame on a novice lab tech, it is apparent the problem goes much higher than that.
Director of the toxicology lab Cynthia Burbach and her lead quality control employee are now under the microscope as a result of accusations of mismanagement by the disgraced greenhorn tech. He claims that Burbach, whose job as supervisor is to review technicians’ data, is ultimately responsible for the errors that necessitated the retesting.
When a DUI suspect provides a blood sample to test for alcohol levels, it almost always ends up at the CDPHE, which tests blood work for more than 200 law enforcement agencies around the state. In October 2011, the CDPHE hired recent college graduate Mitchell Fox-Rivera to perform an initial review of the blood work data. He worked under Burbach for five months until, following an analysis of some blood work by an independent laboratory, it was discovered that Fox-Rivera was not following proper operating procedures and was not properly operating lab equipment. He was fired last month.
(It should be noted that the public learned of the massive snafu only after the press got hold of an e-mail from Burbach in which she asked that prosecutors that had pending cases with Fox-Rivera contact her lab. Public defenders reportedly did not receive the same courtesy. Health department spokesman Mark Salley has been quoted as saying that Fox-Rivera’s errors would have been in the defendants’ favor, although defense attorneys are already lining up to challenge the lab evidence.)
Fox-Rivera told the Denver Post that his supervisors were supposed to be reviewing his data and that it was not his role to review data for forensic and litigation purposes. Even if Fox-Rivera made mistakes — which can be expected to some extent from a new employee — a supervisor should have been looking over his shoulder and correcting those errors. That mistakes went undetected for almost half a year, and that they were not discovered until another lab did the work correctly, shows that state lab supervisors were inattentive at best and negligent at worst.
We can only hope that state officials take a hard look at what exactly occurred (or did not occur) at the lab and undertake some housecleaning and/or ensure that supervisors and techs go back to the equivalent of laboratory boot camp.