During Wednesday night’s Democratic presidential debate, former Vice President Joe Biden and Hawaii Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard went after California Sen. Kamala Harris over her record as the state’s attorney general and San Francisco’s district attorney.
Biden alluded to a crime lab scandal that involved her district attorney’s office and resulted in more than 1,000 drug cases being dismissed. Gabbard claimed Harris “blocked evidence that would have freed an innocent man from death row until the courts forced her to do so.”
Biden’s claim that 1,000 drug cases had to be dismissed when Harris was D.A. is accurate, although Harris has denied knowing about the problems with the crime lab that triggered those dismissals until the issue became public. Gabbard is correct that Harris did not pursue all evidence in the case she referenced, but the innocence of the inmate in question has yet to be determined.
The San Francisco drug lab was shut down after a lead technician, who testified on behalf of prosecutors on drug cases, was found to have systematically mishandled the drug samples seized from suspects, even consuming some herself.
While the San Francisco Police Department was responsible for running the lab, not Harris’s district attorney office, a court ruled in 2010 that the district attorney’s office violated defendants’ constitutional rights by not disclosing what it knew about the tainted drug evidence.
Judge Anne-Christine Masullo wrote in her decision that prosecutors “at the highest levels of the district attorney’s office knew that Madden was not a dependable witness at trial and that there were serious concerns regarding the crime lab.”
And the Wall Street Journal reported in June that Harris ignored staff recommendations back in 2005 urging her office to establish a defendants rights policy, known as the Brady doctrine, that would have mandated her staff to disclose such information to defendants.
Harris has denied being aware of the drug lab issues at the time and also noted that her office implemented a Brady policy after the drug lab scandal came to her attention. Her office dismissed an estimated 1,000 cases as a result.
Kevin Cooper case
In February, California Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered new DNA testing in the 1983 murder case of Kevin Cooper. Cooper came within hours of execution in 2004 after being charged with the murders of an adult couple and two children. Harris opposed the testing when she was the state’s attorney general.
She has since said she supports DNA testing and encouraged Newsom to approve Cooper’s request. She did not offer specifics on why she did not approve the testing during her tenure.
In response to a request for comment, Harris’s campaign pointed to a past statement where the senator called a New York Times columnist last year, telling him, “I feel awful about this.”
The testing is not yet complete. Whether Gabbard’s claim that the testing “would” have exonerated him remains an open question.
Harris defended her criminal justice record Wednesday night. “As elected attorney general of California I did the work of significantly reforming the criminal justice system of a state of 40 million people, which became a national model of the work that needs to be done, and I am proud of that work.”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to add more detail on the Kevin Cooper and crime lab cases.