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DNA analyst in Northern Colorado fired over handling of evidence, charges pending

DNA analyst at center of investigation over handling of evidence in Weld County
DNA analyst at center of investigation over handling of evidence in Weld County 02:52

A Weld County Sheriff's Office DNA analyst who worked in the office's Northern Colorado Regional Forensic Lab for just over a decade has been fired for alleged mishandling of evidence and the sheriff's office is now pursuing criminal charges. It's the second case of this nature in Colorado in about four months.

Chiara Wuensch was fired Wednesday, the sheriff's office said in a statement Friday morning, after a month-long investigation by the sheriff's office. That investigation was initiated after findings from a separate investigation by the Colorado Bureau of Investigation into one of its forensic scientists who's facing similar accusations.

RELATED: CBI forensic scientist being investigated for anomalies in DNA testing

The sheriff's office said Wuensch violated the county code of conduct and the sheriff's office conduct standards in not coordinating with a sheriff's office internal investigation.

CBS News Colorado left a voicemail for Wuensch seeking comment Friday morning.

"We hire people that we believe have the utmost integrity. No system is better than the people who work in it," said Weld County Sheriff Steve Reams.

The sheriff's office said it was limited in the details it could release due to the ongoing nature of the investigation, but Wuensch testified in the trial of Steven Pankey in 2021, according to news reports from that time.

RELATED: New forensic crime lab in Weld County about to open its doors

A LinkedIn profile with Wuensch says she worked at the Northern Colorado Regional Forensic Laboratory since November 2013 -- around the time it opened -- and as a senior forensic scientist at the Wisconsin State Crime Laboratory from June 1990 to October 2013.

The Weld County Sheriff's Office said the "anomalies" found in Wuensch's casework were "limited." It wasn't immediately clear how long those "anomalies" go back and if or how this will impact any criminal cases she worked on is still unknown.

"It is a very rare and troubling situation," said Raj Chohan, CBS News Colorado Legal Analyst.

Chohan said there are many people who have gone through the Weld County judicial system who will be paying attention to what comes from this investigation.

"There is a possibility it could taint every major case this person has worked on in the last several years," Chohan said. "DNA is typically considered to be bulletproof evidence in the identification of the defendant. If there is some problem with that evidence, some credibility issues, that is going to be a really important concern for prosecutors."

In a statement issued to CBS News Colorado's Dillon Thomas, the Weld County District Attorney's Office said it has received some of the information gathered by investigators. 

The DA's office is now working on contacting defendants potentially impacted by this investigation in an effort to promote transparency.

"The DNA analyst is critically important to proving out cases where identity of the defendant is at issue," Chohan said. "You're going to have situation where you have people in prison serving long stretches of time, after convictions at trial, who are going to ask for their case to be relooked at. Because, they are going to think maybe they have an opening here if there is some reason to question the reliability or the ethics of the DNA analyst."

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