DA plans retest of felony drug evidence

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) (Credit: Howard Schnapp)

Nassau District Attorney Kathleen Rice plans to have all felony drug evidence collected over the past three years -- as many as 3,000 cases -- retested because of foul-ups at the county's police crime lab.

Rice originally had planned to seek a more limited retesting of just 10 percent of all drug cases analyzed by each lab technician.

The district attorney has also broadened plans for technical re-evaluations of blood-alcohol testing in drunken-driving cases. She now says she wants a review of all blood-alcohol cases back to and including 2006 -- a significant increase from last month, when she said she would seek reviews of 20 percent of the cases.

The majority of felony drug cases from 2008 and 2009 that will be retested have been disposed of in the courts, said Meg Reiss, Rice's chief of staff. If tests show the lab wrongly concluded evidence was illegal drugs, the office would ask for charges to be dismissed and convictions could be vacated. And if drug weights are found to be wrong, felony charges could be reduced to misdemeanors.

"We're just going to the heart of the matter and retesting," Reiss said Wednesday.

NMS Labs, a private testing facility in Willow Grove, Pa., will retest the drugs.

Marc Gann, president of the Nassau County Bar Association, called Rice's pumped-up testing plans "a major step in the right direction" but said they should reach back to 2005, when the lab was first placed on probation. Last December, a national accrediting organization placed the lab on probation a second time.

"The drugs are the cases that have been most significantly implicated in the pattern of problems at the lab," Gann said.

Reiss said increasing concerns about lab work -- including botched cocaine tests and mismatched blood-alcohol paperwork -- prompted the changes.

On Monday, a Nassau County Court judge reversed himself and threw out a Hicksville woman's conviction for aggravated vehicular assault and drunken driving, saying the recent findings about lab testing errors meant she was entitled to a new trial. That ruling, legal experts said, is expected to open the door to more legal challenges.

The lab's troubles began after a Dec. 3 report issued by the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors cited major violations found during a five-day inspection and review. Generally, just two or three labs nationally have been put on probation during the year, the board said.

The subsequent shutdown of the facility also triggered questions about who knew what and when. If an investigation done by the state's inspector general, appointed recently by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, shows police knew evidence was compromised and did nothing, hundreds of arrests and criminal convictions could be challenged, lawyers and experts said.

Reiss said a new police evidence management unit could start shipping evidence to NMS this week.

The Nassau Police Department and County Executive Edward Mangano's office confirmed Rice had the go-ahead to retest at NMS.

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