Kelli McDonald, a former Broward Sheriff’s Office crime-lab analyst, was involved in testing at least 5,800 drug cases during her nine-year career with the agency. But after discrepancies were found in drug cases she had worked on beginning in 2012, she became the subject of multiple internal affairs investigations. After sitting on forced administrative reassignment for more than a year, McDonald tendered her resignation last November 19.
Broward Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Keyla Concepción says the IA investigation into McDonald’s conduct is ongoing despite her resignation. State Attorney’s Office spokesperson Ron Ishoy says his office is conducting a separate investigation into McDonald as well but declined to elaborate.
Gordon Weekes, Broward County’s chief assistant public defender, says that given the concerns about McDonald’s trustworthiness, the evidence in every case she touched should be considered tainted — and not be trusted in court, unless it is reweighed.
McDonald began working in the BSO crime lab, which tests and weighs seized drugs, on July 24, 2006, and was soon working on more than 1,000 cases per year. Years later, discrepancies began to appear. On February 27, 2012, the crime-lab manager contacted internal affairs and reported that a small amount of cocaine — .04 grams, roughly the size of a pencil eraser — had gone missing. McDonald was the last person to have signed the drugs out of the property vault. During a 2014 court hearing, she testified that the drugs had been sealed in “a small plastic round container with a snap-on lid like you would receive from a gumball machine,” which was then sealed in a manila envelope. She said the entire package had gone missing. Internal affairs never located the missing evidence, and although McDonald denied any knowledge of where it may have gone, she was found to have violated department standards.
When the Broward Public Defender’s Office got wind of that investigation, it hired an independent analyst to reweigh drugs in another of McDonald’s cases. She originally reported that 16.3 grams of cocaine had been seized in a 2012 drug-trafficking arrest. The independent analyst reweighed the drugs and recorded only 10.98 grams.
McDonald was then asked to reweigh drugs from 20 other cases she had worked. One of those cases appeared to have been 15 grams short of its original weight. On February 3, 2014, McDonald was told she was the subject of another IA investigation. The next day, she was placed on administrative duty.
In August of that year, New Times found inconsistencies in at least four other cases McDonald had been involved in, including a 2010 arrest in which police said 38 pounds of marijuana had been seized but McDonald recorded only 28.1 pounds.
Last November, McDonald resigned, saying in her resignation letter, “My expertise and work ethics have been exemplified as the assigned analyst for the Drug Trafficking Unit of the State Attorney’s Office, as well as being assigned to the Operation Smoking Gun multi-agency operation. Any allegations, past or present, regarding the crime lab or myself, are not in any part due to my personal actions. I have worked all cases within the policies and procedures of the BSO Crime Lab. As the investigation regarding the BSO Crime Lab continues, I have been ‘temporarily reassigned’ for more than 22 months. When asked when this investigation will conclude, BSO Internal Affairs and General Counsel have yet to provide an answer. Therefore, I will now pursue advancing my career outside of the agency.”
Attempts to reach McDonald for comment were unsuccessful. McDonald had worked as an adjunct professor at St. Thomas University in Miami Gardens, but a spokesperson says she has not taught at the school since 2014.
Nationally, police crime labs tend to be overworked and underfunded, and according to 2010 data, Broward’s drug unit has one analyst for every 319,925 county residents — a more demanding ratio than Palm Beach County (one per 253,290 residents) or Miami-Dade (one per 238,717).
Weekes, the public defender, concedes, “They were so overworked and underfunded.” He noted that McDonald’s bosses, James Ongley and analyst Randy Hilliard, both reportedly resigned from the lab as of March 28, 2014. Says Weekes: “In all the other instances of misconduct in the nation, it’s come from the highest producers in the lab. They get so caught up being number one, what do they do? They start cutting corners and start messing stuff up.
“Everything about Kelli McDonald was screaming that this was a problem,” Weekes says. “This could have been identified, but they overlooked it.”
The only way to provide justice for individual defendants accused of drug crimes is to reweigh all of the evidence McDonald touched, Weekes says. In cases that are still open, he is asking judges that evidence be reweighed . He’s not yet sure whether or how many old cases could be reopened. He noted that the State Attorney’s Office is “unwilling to reweigh everything, because of the cost.”
State attorney spokesperson Ishoy downplayed the matter, saying via email that McDonald’s cases appear to have had a “very limited effect. In the vast majority of cases in which Ms. McDonald was involved, supervisors tell me, drugs were simply retested, everything was as it was supposed to be, and the case proceeded on. There were a handful of cases (we don’t have an exact count as these are handled on a case-by-case basis) in which supervisors ended up approving pleas that may have had some relationship to a concern about lab testing. Usually that would mean dropping one of multiple charges as part of the plea, but not the whole case. In criminal prosecutions, each case decision is made up of the totality of the evidence presented.”