A Minnesota man spent nearly three months in jail on felony drug charges because police could not tell the difference between amphetamines and organic vitamin supplements.
“I had been sitting in the jail since November with my bail set at $250,000,” Joseph Ray Burrell told The Mankato Free Press. “Then, two days before trial, they dropped the charges and let me go.”
Burrell was charged with counts of felony drug possession and jailed after Makato police found a bag of powder in his car during a traffic shop on Nov. 14, 2014. Burrell  told officers that the substance was a prescribed supplement, but police thought it was crystal meth. An initial test indicated the substance was amphetamine, prompting prosecutors to charge Burrell.
Prosecutors Took Their Time
A more thorough test was then ordered, but prosecutors waited a month to send the powder to the Minnesota Bureau of Crime Apprehension (BSA) Crime Lab to be analyzed.
“I believe the prosecutor in Blue Earth County was dragging their feet,” Burrell said. “I got arrested November 14, [and] 38 days later, he finally sends the alleged amphetamines for the BCA lab to get final test results.”
It then took another month for the lab to determine that the mysterious powder really was vitamins, and another month after the results were returned to drop the charges. Burrell was two days from going to trial on the drug charges when he was released.
Burrell was apparently driving home from a drug  treatment center when he was stopped by police because his lights weren’t on. Burrell acknowledges he has done drugs in the past but says he is now clean.
He spent nearly three months in jail because he could not afford the $250,000 bail.
“I was furious, I was hot, I was [ticked] off. At the same time it was like, unbelievable,” Burrell told Fox Twin Cities. The Mankato resident said he is planning a civil suit against authorities in Blue Earth County.
The vitamins were prescribed to treat a sore shoulder, he said.
“I told the judge I couldn’t plead guilty to something I knew wasn’t a drug,” Burrell said. “They set my bail at $250,000 for vitamins.”
The powdered substance was methylsulfonylmethane  or MSM, an organic supplement that some people take to relieve pain and swelling in their joints.
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Not The Only Case
Inaccurate tests  like the one that sent Burrell to jail could be far common than TV shows like CSI would have us believe.
A man named Gerard Richardson spent 18 years in prison based on a forensic expert’s testimony about a bite mark on the victim’s body, Washington Post columnist Radley Balko reported. DNA evidence later showed that another man had committed the crime.
Richardson is one of a number of people convicted with scientific testimony based on a technique called pattern matching, which is not backed by science, Balko charged. In pattern matching, experts try to determine if the pattern of a wound matches a person’s teeth or the shape of an object such as a weapon.
Many of the claims that forensic experts have been making on the witness stand for decades have no scientific foundation, a 2009 report  from the National Academy of Sciences called Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward charged. The report was commissioned by the US Justice Department.
“The forensic science system, encompassing both research and practice, has serious problems that can only be addressed by a national commitment to overhaul the current structure that supports the forensic science community in this country,” the report said.
If these charges are true, Burrell is far from the only person who has been jailed or imprisoned because of inaccurate tests and poor science.
Do you believe cases like Burrell’s are rare or more common than we believe? Share your thoughts in the section below: