By Claire Withycombe

The Bulletin

A statewide working group has been formed to review policies and procedures at the Oregon State Police crime lab amid the widening criminal investigation of a forensic analyst at the Bend lab, Gov. Kate Brown announced Friday.

The group, consisting of several attorneys and a police chief, was assembled at the behest of OSP as that agency and the Oregon Department of Justice continue their investigation of Nika Larsen, a forensic analyst suspected of mishandling drug evidence.

Larsen, 35, has been employed at the Bend crime lab since 2012 and has been accused of pilfering controlled substances from evidence submitted to the lab, according to Deschutes County District Attorney John Hummel.

Oregon State Police operate five forensic services labs: one each in Bend, Portland, Central Point, Pendleton and Springfield. The Bend crime lab analyzes evidence from cases throughout Central Oregon and can conduct biological processing, analysis of controlled substances, field investigations and latent fingerprint analysis, according to OSP’s Forensic Services Division.

The Larsen investigation implicates 27 pending cases in Deschutes County, most of which are controlled substance offenses. Hummel said earlier this week that the open cases would be handled individually, while a set of protocols would be developed for the closed cases.

Crook County District Attorney Daina Vitolins said last week that 80 cases in that county involved Larsen, while Jefferson County District Attorney Steve Leriche said Friday that 85 cases involved the analyst, bringing the total of potentially implicated cases in Central Oregon to 667.

The new working group, chaired by state Sen. Jackie Winters, R-Salem, and House Majority Leader Jennifer Williamson, D-Portland, is charged with reviewing the allegations as well as lab operations. Together they will make any recommendations on changes to the state statutes governing the crime lab to the Oregon Legislature.

The group includes a retired Multnomah County district attorney, the Keizer Police Chief and the chief defender of the appellate division of the Office of Public Defense Services, as well as a criminal defense attorney and an adviser to Brown on public safety issues, according to the governor’s office.

Hummel said Thursday that after a meeting with representatives from the U.S. Department of Justice, it remained undecided whether a federal investigation or indictment would be handed down, though he has called for federal charges.

The allegations against Larsen have arisen several months after Hummel concluded a review of several Deschutes County criminal cases that were analyzed by Jeff Dovci, a criminalist at the Oregon State Police lab in Central Point, records of that review were provided to The Bulletin this week show.

Dovci’s work was first called into question by state police, who notified Hummel when they found potentially exculpatory information — evidence favorable to a defendant — in a 2005 aggravated murder case out of Douglas County. Evidence from six Deschutes County cases had been examined by Dovci, though the district attorney had filed charges on only two of those cases.

In late May this year, Hummel sent those two cases to the Oregon Innocence Project, an enterprise that investigates claims of innocence made by criminal defendants, in an effort to give the cases an independent look. Steve Wax, the legal director of the organization that runs the Innocence Project, found that Dovci’s actions did not affect the outcomes of the cases, and Hummel took no further action.

In 2002, Dorinne Tye, then 27, pleaded guilty in Deschutes County Circuit Court by way of Alford to one count each of unlawful use of a dangerous weapon and recklessly endangering another person in connection with a shooting incident on Halloween in 2001, receiving 10 days’ jail time and 36 months of probation. By making an Alford plea, the defendant does not admit committing the act, but acknowledges the prosecution would likely be able to prove the charge.

No one was hurt in the Halloween incident, but according to sheriff’s office records, children were in the car when Tye was initially arrested on suspicion of attempted murder for allegedly firing a shot at her ex-husband. Dovci examined several pieces of evidence, including a .22 pistol and cartridges.

“The fact that Ms. Tye fired a shot is not contested,” Wax wrote in an Aug. 31 letter to Hummel at the conclusion of the Innocence Project’s review. “The issue in the trial court was, rather, her intent and the direction of the shot. The case resolved on a negotiated plea of guilty in 2002. … Neither in my review of the file, nor my conversation with Ms. Tye, did I find a basis to challenge her conviction.”

The other case Wax reviewed from Deschutes County concerned a then-19-year-old defendant, Christopher Cardonia, who was accused of unlawful possession, delivery and manufacture of methamphetamine in late 2004. Officers found a gun in the motel room where they suspected the drug activity occurred, court records show.

Dovci’s evidence report was submitted to the court after Cardonia pleaded guilty to unlawful delivery of a controlled substance, according to Wax. “My conclusion is that Mr. Dovci’s work, even assuming it was questionable as a general matter, did not affect Mr. (Cardonia’s) case in a manner that should lead to a challenge to (his) conviction,” Wax wrote in a letter to Hummel at the conclusion of the investigation.

According to OSP Lt. Bill Fugate, the state police’s forensic labs undergo both external and internal audits as part of a voluntary national accreditation process. The accrediting body, the Laboratory Accreditation Board of the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors, conducts on-site surveillance visits about every two years. Annual internal audits are submitted to that body and the labs undergo an external audit to ensure the compliance of the forensic division’s DNA section with the FBI Quality Assurance standards biannually.

­— Reporter: 541-383-0376,

cwithycombe@bendbulletin.com

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