Little headway made on new Nassau crime lab

The Nassau County Crime Lab in Mineola. (December The Nassau County Crime Lab in Mineola. (December 2010) Photo Credit: NCPD

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Nassau has spent almost $2 million on the out-of-state testing of drugs in the wake of the shutdown of the county's police crime lab.

After faulty evidence testing prompted Nassau officials to close the lab on Feb. 18, 2011, they tapped the medical examiner's office, instead of the police, to test criminal evidence.

However, while the medical examiner's office is already testing bodily fluids for drugs and alcohol and analyzing fingerprints, it has not yet been accredited to test drug evidence.

For now, Nassau is paying NMS Labs, in Pennsylvania, to test drug evidence until ASCLD/LAB -- a North Carolina rating agency -- accredits the medical examiner. Accreditation for drug testing is expected in 2013.

Police forfeiture funds -- assets seized in criminal cases -- have been used to pay NMS to retest drugs seized in old cases while police operating funds have paid for testing in new cases.

Nassau has sent NMS all 2,200 drug samples from old felony cases that occurred between 2007 and 2010.

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The county has also sent NMS 160 drug samples from old misdemeanor cases for retesting.

Though NMS has received all the felony evidence in need of retesting, it has not yet completed its analysis in those cases, said Michael Balboni, who heads the advisory board that is overseeing the conversion of the police lab into a facility run by civilian scientists under the auspices of the medical examiner.

"The restoration of the crime lab continues apace and has achieved several important milestones," Balboni said.

ASCLD/LAB has already accredited the medical examiner's division of forensic services to analyze fingerprints left at crime scenes and to test bodily fluids like blood and urine for drugs and alcohol, Balboni said.

The drug retesting became necessary when it became evident in 2011 that past mistakes made in the police lab might affect the outcome of criminal cases.

In April 2012, for example, a Nassau judge threw out a Queens man's cocaine conviction after his attorneys pointed to past faulty testing at the lab.

A blistering November 2011 report on the lab by then-State Inspector General Ellen Biben stated that inconsistencies in drug evidence had been found in more than 10 percent of the cases that had been retested at that time.

Biben's report said the lab "suffered from weak leadership, a dysfunctional quality management system, analysts with inconsistent training and qualifications, and outdated and incomplete testing procedures."

Balboni said he could not comment at this time on plans to move the medical examiner's forensic services division to a new facility in New Cassel.

The Nassau Legislature has approved $3.87 million for design and construction of the planned lab. So far no contracts have been awarded, Balboni said.

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Almost one year after Biben issued her report, the New York Commission on Forensic Science -- which oversees crime labs statewide -- was to have met Monday in Manhattan to reconsider her recommendations, but the meeting was postponed because of Hurricane Sandy.

In a vote last December, the commission rejected Biben's recommendations.

Biben's report slammed the forensic commission for abdicating its statewide oversight of crime labs to the ASCLD/LAB accrediting agency.

The report criticized the commission for failing to "promote uniformity, quality and excellence among forensic laboratories in New York State."

Commission member Marvin Schechter, a Manhattan defense attorney who supports Biben's recommendations, said: "The inspector general said we have statutory authority to make changes but we don't use it. We are not robust."

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But another commission member, Ann Willey, former state health department director of laboratory policy and planning, said there is no money to hire more state employees who could provide technical assistance to crime labs.

Willey said that if the commission takes a vote to implement Biben's recommendations, as it did last December, she will vote no.

"I don't think there are any funds to get it accomplished," Willey said.

Michael Green, executive deputy commissioner of the New York State Division of Criminal Justice, declined to comment. Green also heads the 14-member forensic commission.

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