Nassau DA Rice facing crime lab fallout

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Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice comments about Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice comments about the mishaps of the crime lab at a news conference in Mineola. (Feb. 15, 2011) Photo Credit: Howard Schnapp

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Dan Janison Melville. N.Y. Tuesday January 26, 2010. Daniel Janison,

Dan Janison has been a reporter at Newsday since 1997, initially as a staff writer for the New

At least until an independent investigation - by someone - fixes blame and specifies solutions in the Nassau crime-lab mess, District Attorney Kathleen Rice, as the county's elected law enforcer, will face the forensic fallout.

The sharpest illustration so far came Thursday in State Supreme Court.

Rice tried to have Eric Dinallo, one of her Democratic primary rivals for attorney general last year, named special prosecutor in the crime-lab probe, based on part of the county charter that she argued gave her power to do so.

But acting State Supreme Court Justice William Donnino slapped that proposal down, suggesting the governor's office would be the proper starting point for such a move - as seasoned lawyers privately predicted in recent days.

The district attorney indicated she will take that route.

That said, no prosecutor - no lawyer, for that matter - welcomes a public setback in court.

Some political backroomers noted this week that Rice has been taking the public initiative on the crime-lab problem - while County Executive Edward Mangano, whose county police department is at the center of the questions, remained lower key.

Suspicious as we tend to be, we might just be looking at cooperation between government offices. Mangano, who took office last year, appears to be yielding to Rice's advice, giving weight to her extensive experience with the lab. "The public sees her taking it seriously," said one local official. "She's not sweeping this under the rug."

Ironically, Rice happens to be mentioned as a potential candidate for county executive in 2013. But before we get ahead of ourselves, the laboratory story has a long way to play out - especially if crime-lab fiascoes elsewhere are any indication. They take months, even years, to resolve.

In San Francisco the details were different, but the frame familiar: A scandal in the police crime lab, threatening case prosecutions, dragged through an election year.

Coincidentally, it was while Rice ran a close second to Eric Schneiderman in the five-way Democratic primary for New York attorney general last year that San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris was running for California's attorney general.

Despite public disclosures of the lab problems - and other barbs from foes against her record - Harris won, if by a margin so tight her opponent didn't concede for three weeks.

Closer to home, the New York Police Department's crime lab in recent years managed to get in - and then out of - hot water.

A few years ago, it was revealed that two of the lab's 60 technicians allegedly called substances cocaine without actually testing them. Defense lawyers challenged claims that no laws were compromised. The chief of the Forensic Investigations Division was transferred.

By 2007, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly could point to a 98 percent score in a new review by the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors/Laboratory Accreditation Board. "It's something we're proud of," Kelly was quoted as saying at the time.

Was there rampant incompetence in Nassau's lab? Any corruption? Whose? We may not know for sure until at least one impartial inquiry is completed.

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