Funds to contest crime lab evidence go unused

A file photo of the Nassau County police

A file photo of the Nassau County police crime lab in Mineola. (Credit: NCPD)

Nassau County has failed since last fall to find a way to notify convicts who can't afford attorneys that $140,000 is available to help them challenge convictions related to faulty evidence-testing at the shuttered police crime lab.

The state Office of Indigent Legal Services made the money available after Nassau applied for it. The office will not directly pay attorneys -- as a condition for receiving the money, the county would pay for legal help for eligible convicts and be reimbursed by the state.

So far, not one penny of the $140,000 has been disbursed, officials said.

County Attorney John Ciampoli said locating databases of attorneys and their clients who might be eligible for the funds has been difficult. The Nassau County Bar Association and the Assigned Counsel Defender Plan have been trying to help, Ciampoli said.

Ciampoli said he met Thursday with bar association president Susan Katz Richman, who has declined to comment.

Ciampoli said the difficulty is "not only identifying a group of people potentially who would qualify but also finding an effective way of . . . advising them the program has been established."

He said the county might have to resort to combing a state criminal database.

Brandon Garrett, a University of Virginia law professor and a wrongful-convictions expert, said the county needs to distribute the funds. "It's something the county has an ethical obligation to do," Garrett said.

County Executive Edward Mangano closed the lab in 2011 after serious evidence that testing mistakes were discovered.

Just last week, Nassau County Judge Tammy Robbins set aside the 2010 cocaine conviction of Khurram Shahzad, 27, of Queens, after prosecutors consented to a defense motion saying the verdict should be tossed because of the lab's problems. Prosecutors did not concede the facts in the motion. Shahzad's family paid for his legal defense.

The state money is crucial because once poor convicts exhaust all appeals, the law generally does not permit the county to pay attorneys to represent them, except at court hearings. Without the state money, poor inmates may not be able to hire attorneys to try to get their convictions tossed.

Mineola attorney Marc Gann, a bar association spokesman, said a group of lawyers and law clerks has volunteered to help.

"It is still critical we make sure everyone, in fact, knows there's a possibility they were wrongly convicted, and notifying the entire universe of people is incredibly important," Gann said.

After the lab was closed, Nassau began sending drug evidence tested there in about 3,000 cases to a private Pennsylvania lab for retesting. Katie Grilli-Robles, a spokeswoman for Mangano, said 1,775 cases have been retested so far.

John Byrne, a spokesman for District Attorney Kathleen Rice, could not immediately say how many people had been notified about the results.

Byrne said defendants or their attorneys who request the retest findings receive them. If discrepancies have been found, defendants are automatically notified. Byrne said all defendants are not automatically notified because it is difficult to track some down.

But Garrett, the wrongful conviction expert, said there should be automatic notification for all defendants.

"Someone needs to be demanding these reports," Garrett said. "There needs to be an adversarial process."

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