Drug case hearing puts Nassau crime lab on trial

6. Nassau County's crime lab problem After the 6. Nassau County's crime lab problem
After the Nassau County crime lab was placed on probation in December 2010, county lawyers on Feb. 18 ordered closed the drug chemistry section of the county's police crime lab. Investigators began probing who knew about the flaws in testing.

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The forensic evidence lab at Nassau County police headquarters in Mineola is seen in an undated photo.

Photo Credit: Nassau County Police Department File

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A Nassau County judge has granted a hearing to a man who wants his conviction for felony cocaine possession thrown out based on a history of evidence testing errors at the now-shuttered police crime lab. A date for the hearing has not been set.

Judge Tammy Robbins' decision in the case of Khurram Shahzad, 27, of Jamaica, Queens, marks the first time someone convicted on drug charges in Nassau has received a hearing because of slipshod evidence testing at the lab.

A jury convicted Shahzad, a former fast-food restaurant manager, in 2010, after police said they found cocaine in his glove compartment when they arrested him for running a red light in Massapequa. He has been awaiting sentencing at the Nassau County Correctional Center in East Meadow.

"Had the jury heard about the issues with the Nassau County crime lab, their verdict may have been different," said attorney Scott Gross, of Hauppauge, who recently took over Shahzad's case. "We will use all of our resources to hold the Nassau County crime lab's feet to the fire."

Because of complications in his case, including his request that Robbins set aside his conviction, Shahzad's sentencing has been delayed.

County Executive Edward Mangano closed the lab last February after a national accrediting group placed it on probation. Drug evidence collected between 2007 and 2010 is being retested as a result of the lab's foul-ups. And, in a Nov. 10 report, state Inspector General Ellen Biben blasted the lab for its errors.

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Nassau is sending drug evidence collected between 2007 and 2010 to a private lab for retesting at a monthly cost of $100,000. Gross said he is not aware of any retesting of the evidence in Shahzad's case.

Shahzad is a Pakistani citizen legally residing in the United States. Under the law, noncitizens convicted of narcotics felonies can be deported.

Last September, Acting Supreme Court Justice Joseph Calabrese denied a request by a man serving a prison sentence of up to 12 years to throw out his 2007 cocaine conviction because of lab errors. Calabrese did not hold a hearing in order to make his decision.

Rockville Centre attorney Virginia Conroy represents the man and is seeking to appeal Calabrese's decision. She has also filed papers asking Calabrese to consider new information on the lab in the November inspector general's report.

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Last March, Nassau Judge George Peck held a hearing and threw out a Hicksville woman's drunken driving conviction based on the lab's problems. Garden City attorney Brian Griffin, who represented the woman, said Friday: "I don't find it surprising that the court would be concerned to the point of directing a hearing in connection with other areas of the lab."

District Attorney Kathleen Rice's office did not return phone calls for comment.

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