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The Palm Beach Post

July 15, 1998

Author: Monika Gonzalez,  Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

The county’s chief medical examiner is again questioning the accuracy of the sheriff’s lab after another lab found drug-reporting discrepancies in more cases.

The results returned this month on seven death investigations that Dr. Jacqueline Martin sent to a Rochester, N.Y., lab for retesting showed levels of morphine and two other types of drugs not reported by the sheriff’s lab.
The detection problems affected the outcome of four death investigations, she said, allowing her to close two 1996 cases that had been listed as undetermined. They follow problems detecting morphine in nine cases about which Martin raised questions in April.

Tom Carroll, the sheriff’s chief toxicologist, said the lab’s problems were limited to the detection of morphine and have been resolved. He said that at least in the new cases he’s been shown, most of the drugs found by the Rochester lab were  “insignificant” and would not have changed the cause of death.

In three of those seven cases, the Rochester lab found benzodiazepines that weren’t detected by the sheriff’s lab, documents show.  Benzodiazepines include a wide range of prescription drugs and anti-anxiety medications such as Valium and Xanax.

The sheriff’s lab failed to find morphine and small amounts of benzodiazepines in an accidental overdose this year, documents show.

Carroll said the instrument used to test samples at the sheriff’s lab is set by its manufacturer to detect a certain minimum level of benzodiazepines. Smaller amounts that appear in samples – such as the three cases Martin is questioning – aren’t reported, he said.

“The bottom line is that there is a second class of drugs that were not reported or detected by the PBSO lab,” Martin said.

She also said the sheriff’s lab didn’t report all the metabolized cocaine in a fourth case, which she has now labeled a cocaine death. Carroll said the lab doesn’t report some forms of metabolized cocaine, because if the drug is not found in the blood, it didn’t trigger the death.

And Martin said the sheriff’s lab also didn’t find Zoloft, an antidepressant, that caused an overdose.  The Rochester lab’s detection of the drug caused her to rule as suicide a 1996 case that had previously been labeled undetermined.

Carroll said he questions the other lab’s detection of Zoloft.

Martin sent nine 1997 and 1998 cases earlier this year to an independent lab that found lethal levels of morphine in all the cases, although the sheriff’s lab had found none or only trace levels. She is sending all of her toxicology screenings to a Miami lab until, she said, she is comfortable with the reliability of the sheriff’s testing.