The former supervisor responsible for drunk driving tests at the county crime lab argued Friday that the allegations surrounding the tests' validity--and his own accuracy--could be resolved by simply retesting the samples.
Responding to charges that he was partly to blame for the lab's recent problems, retired Forensic Alcohol Supervisor Norm Fort pointed to the blood and urine samples kept for 15 months.
"I propose . . . that the courts appoint an independent forensic alcohol laboratory to immediately take custody of and retest all specimens tested by me and currently retained," Fort said in a written statement.
Fort is expected to be a key witness for defense attorneys who are urging a judge to throw out evidence in drunk driving cases analyzed by the Ventura County Sheriff's Department crime lab.
This week, an internal district attorney's memo quoting Fort's former colleagues alleged he perjured himself while testifying on behalf of the lab more than a year ago, a source close to the investigation said. Fort retired in November.
"It's clear to me that [the Sheriff's Department is] trying to scare Mr. Fort from testifying," the source said. "In his career, Norm Fort has testified more times than anyone in Ventura County and been cross-examined thousands of times, and no one has been able to lay a glove on the man."
The memo adds another layer to the complicated mess of problems surrounding the crime lab and its handling of drunk driving tests.
About two dozen defense attorneys have joined in what one sheriff's official called "a feeding frenzy" for lawyers and a huge headache for prosecutors as hundreds of cases are reviewed.
"There's no way I can predict the number of cases involved," said Deputy Dist. Atty. Pete Kossoris. "I can say it is costing us and the taxpayers a lot of money and resources."
Late Friday, Chief Deputy Dist. Atty. Ron Janes released a statement saying the prosecutor's office is investigating the lab and expressing dismay that some of the information has leaked out.
"As information is being developed, we have provided, and continue to provide, hundreds of pages of relevant documents to the parties involved in this litigation," Janes said. "These documents include lab records, interviews of witnesses and other officials' records.
"Apparently, some of these documents have been selectively provided to the media by some attorneys for the defendants," he added. "We believe it is unethical and unprofessional for thus far unfounded allegations which unfairly damage the reputation of persons involved in this litigation" to be released.
The problems at the lab spring from a combination of things, said Scott Lewis of the California Department of Health Services, which oversees forensic alcohol testing for the state.
After Fort retired in November, the department failed to find a supervisor to replace him, Lewis said.
In addition, one of the lab's technicians, Vincent Vitale, failed a routine quarterly spot test.
That is when the state decided to withdraw its approval of the crime lab's forensic alcohol testing, Lewis said.
An internal district attorney's memo discussed in court this week stated that Vitale made mistakes on at least 34 blood alcohol tests, said defense attorney Kevin DeNoce.
But DeNoce said Friday that Vitale should not be blamed for the mistakes. A firearms expert, Vitale reportedly resisted being roped into doing blood alcohol tests in November when Fort left.
Vitale failed the random state test in February, but lab officials did not go back and check his earlier tests, DeNoce said.
"If they knew in mid-February that he was using a faulty solution to make these tests, why didn't they go back then and reanalyze the cases which resulted in people being thrown in jail?" he asked.
He said it is unfair to single out Vitale as the "fall guy," arguing that Vitale's superiors are to blame.
On Wednesday, Vitale was escorted out of the crime lab and is now the subject of an Internal Affairs investigation, a sheriff's spokesman said.
After Vitale failed the test, the state took over testing urine and blood at its Santa Barbara lab.
"We never lost our license, as some have reported, but out of an abundance of caution those samples were sent to the lab in Santa Barbara," said Capt. Mark Ball, disputing claims by defense attorneys that the license had been revoked.
Lab officials continued to oversee breath testing but stopped after the state stepped in.