Conviction set aside, Nassau crime lab cited
A Nassau judge Wednesday set aside the cocaine conviction of a Queens man after prosecutors consented to a motion by his attorneys to have the verdict tossed because of faulty testing at the now-shuttered police crime lab.
The action by County Court Judge Tammy Robbins in the case of Khurram Shahzad, 27, a former fast-food restaurant manager, marks the first time a drug conviction has been dismissed after a trial verdict because of the lab's history of evidence testing errors, defense attorneys said.
A jury convicted Shahzad, of Jamaica, Queens, in September 2010 after police said they found cocaine in his glove compartment when he ran a red light in Massapequa. He denied knowledge of the cocaine and has been awaiting sentencing in the county jail in East Meadow.
Assistant District Attorney Daniel Looney said in court the district attorney's office consented to the defense motion but did not "concede the facts" in it.
Attorneys Scott Gross of Hauppauge and Brian Griffin of Garden City, who represented Shahzad, had argued he was unfairly convicted because the jury did not know about the lab's evidence testing problems.
"This is a landmark decision in that this means that courts will no longer accept tainted evidence and use it as a basis for convictions," Gross said.
Shahzad appeared in court Wednesday and pleaded guilty to driving with a suspended license.
John Byrne, spokesman for DA Kathleen Rice, said, "Given the breadth of the hearing, the extensive resources already dedicated to this case, and the fact that the defendant has been incarcerated for more than 500 days, this plea agreement disposes of this case fairly without additional cost to the taxpayers."
Speaking outside court, Gross and Griffin said the police department learned in August 2010 about drug testing errors at the lab. The lawyers pointed to problems with the work of Det. Jayson Pinsky, who tested Shahzad's evidence and testified for the prosecution in the case. "It became evident through our investigation that there were substantial deficiencies in controlled substance testing at the crime lab," Griffin said.
Officer Maureen Roach, a Nassau police department spokeswoman, said, "Anything related to that specific case will not be commented on at this time."
A November 2011 report by then-state Inspector General Ellen Biben detailed a "tortured history" of evidence testing problems at the lab. Last February, County Executive Edward Mangano closed the lab permanently.
Joseph Lo Piccolo, president of the Nassau Criminal Courts Bar Association, said, "The decision to set aside trial verdict pre-sentence with the consent of the district attorney's office recognizes that the jury which heard this case had every right to hear about the problems at the lab."
Nassau judges have thrown out two drunken-driving convictions, faulting unreliable lab evidence. Another judge denied a prison inmate's request to have his 2007 cocaine conviction thrown out because of lab errors. The man is seeking to appeal.
The basis of dismissal
A November 2011 report by State Inspector General Ellen Biben on the Nassau County police crime lab found serious problems, including flawed testing of drug evidence. The report found:
The lab's failure to properly document drug testing was "a deficiency which limits the ability to appropriately review cases and prevents critical examination of the conclusions.
"The lab prepared and sent reports to the district attorney that did not accurately document the testing methods that had been used.
"Flawed reports were the product of poorly trained analysts and outdated procedures.
"The drug chemistry section employed techniques that were outdated and inefficient thereby hampering the analysts' productivity."