Prosecutors’ patchwork approach to notifying defendants about CBI lab scandal fuels calls for statewide action

Debra Aranda worried that someone had died when she was unexpectedly called out of her daily routine in a Pueblo prison a few weeks ago.

But when the 67-year-old arrived at the room she’d been called to, a prison worker handed her a fat manila envelope.

“I’m like, ‘What in the world?’ ” Aranda said.

The envelope was a packet from the Weld County District Attorney’s Office that informed Aranda her criminal conviction might be impacted by the misconduct of Colorado Bureau of Investigation scientist Yvonne “Missy” Woods, who manipulated and deleted DNA testing data for years across hundreds of cases, putting all her forensic work in question — revelations that came to light publicly in late 2023.

Aranda was sentenced to 10 years in prison in 2022 on an attempted murder conviction in a domestic violence stabbing, and Woods was an endorsed witness on her case.

With the packet in hand, Aranda started making calls. To her former public defender. To the district attorney’s office. Legal service organizations. Elected officials.

None of them helped her.

“It’s been so frustrating,” Aranda said in a call from the La Vista Correctional Facility. “…There’s nothing I can do. If I were out there, I wouldn’t stop. I would be all over Google, all over the internet, all over until I got answers. But from in here, my hands are just tied. Or handcuffed, in other words.”

Some Colorado district attorney’s offices have begun to proactively notify former defendants that the legal cases against them might have been impacted by Woods’ unreliable forensic work, The Denver Post found. But the process for people convicted of crimes to act on those notifications is convoluted, and puts the onus on former defendants to either hire attorneys or to go through complicated legal procedures on their own, experts told The Post.

“Notification is not very meaningful if a person sitting in prison has no idea what to do next,” said Anne-Marie Moyes, director of the Korey Wise Innocence Project at the University of Colorado.

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She and others called for Colorado to create a special, statewide process — independent of the CBI — dedicated to the hundreds of people whose convictions could be challenged based on Woods’ flawed work.

“This is a mess that was created by the state, and the state needs to participate in making sure the process to clean it up is fair for the defendants,” said James Karbach, spokesman for the Office of the Colorado State Public Defender.

The Colorado Bureau of Investigation has so far identified problems in more than 650 of Woods’ cases between 2008 and 2023, and hasn’t yet finished a review of her work between 1994 and 2008. Lawmakers this year gave $4.4 million to Colorado prosecutors to investigate claims of wrongful conviction due to her work, but haven’t set aside money for the public defender’s office, which sought $5 million in January.

The defense community is still working to understand the full scope of the problem, said Lynn Noesner, postconviction unit director at the Office of Alternate Defense Counsel, which represents indigent defendants when the public defender’s office cannot and would have shared the $5 million in denied funding.

“This problem with Missy Woods, this massive, horrific problem, from the limited information we’ve been able to glean from CBI and prosecutors so far, it seems it is not limited to Missy Woods, it extends to all of CBI,” she said. “It’s horrible to think about defendants sitting in prison being convicted based on lies. We’re not even talking junk science. We’re talking about fabricated science. So that is the reality here. This is a huge problem.”

The approach to notifications so far has been patchwork, with some district attorneys sending out notifications and others opting not to, The Post found.

Prosecutors in Weld, Jefferson, Gilpin, Arapahoe, Douglas, Elbert and Lincoln counties have started notifying defendants or attorneys in cases that involved Woods. The Denver District Attorney’s Office has not. In Boulder, prosecutors have notified defendants in open cases about Woods’ misconduct but have yet to inform people convicted of crimes, a spokeswoman said.

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Weld County District Attorney Michael Rourke sent letters to about 265 people in March. He opted to notify all former defendants for whom Woods was an endorsed witness — meaning she was listed as a potential witness ahead of trial — not just defendants whose cases CBI flagged for misconduct.

Rourke estimates only about 15 of those 265 cases were actually identified as having problems due to Woods’ work.

“My philosophy was this: I did not want to be viewed by defendants’ defense attorneys or by the courts of being obstructionist,” he said. “I wanted to get out ahead of this and do the right thing on sharing this information.”

How former defendants can use that information varies in the complex world of post-conviction relief, experts said. Under one potential legal avenue — outlined in Rule 35c of the Colorado Rules of Criminal Procedure — former defendants must often write a legal filing on their own to ask a judge to appoint a pro bono attorney to their case.

The judge weighs their claims and can either assign an attorney to work on the case for free or end the claim with no further steps. It’s often difficult for people to craft a filing that is sufficient to meet that first legal standard, said Moyes, of the Innocence Project.

“Under Colorado’s current post-conviction rules, a person is required to fend for themselves until they can persuade a judge to appoint counsel,” she said. “Incarcerated individuals, who do not even have the right to get a copy of their trial transcript, are ill-equipped to make the showing required to get an attorney. Indeed, any Coloradan would have a hard time making the required showing on their own.”

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The 18th Judicial District Attorney’s Office sent out 67 notifications, choosing not to send letters in all 450 cases in which Woods was an endorsed witness, but rather just to people in cases CBI identified as impacted by her work, office spokesman Eric Ross said.

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Prisoners who receive letters about Woods should write to their local public defender’s office, said Karbach, of the state public defender’s office — though he cautioned that public defenders can’t always take on post-conviction efforts, particularly if they represented the client in the original case.

“Because of the complexity of conflict of interest rules, complicated post-conviction procedures, the inconsistent approach to notifying clients by district attorneys and because of a lack of transparency from CBI, responding to requests for assistance is complicated and we are not always able to be the lawyers to give advice,” he said.

Each defendant will need legal advice specific to their circumstances and case and should try to connect with an attorney, either by hiring one or seeking free counsel, he added.

“This is something policymakers in our state may have to take a look at so people can receive fair representation,” he said.

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