Nassau crime lab faces credibility problem

Nassau County Police crime scene investigators collect evidence Nassau County Police crime scene investigators collect evidence and examine fingerprints on a first floor window where a home invader jumped to escape. (Sept. 24, 2006) Photo Credit: Newsday / David L. Pokress

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Four years ago, the Nassau County Police Department's crime lab was put on notice that its work failed repeatedly to meet essential national standards. An accrediting board put the lab on probation and suspended some critical functions - the first move of its kind against any of the state's 22 forensic labs.

Now, the Nassau crime lab is again under fire and again on probation for a new catalog of deficiencies - one of only two labs among nearly 400 nationally to twice face such a threat to its accreditation.

As with the 2006 inspection and a second one not long after, the latest review, in November, found a range of problems, including 15 serious violations, from insufficiently trained technicians to improper drug labeling procedures. In one case, an instrument used in blood-alcohol tests hadn't been calibrated since 2007 and there was no schedule to do so, as required.

Days after the new report came to light, the Nassau police commissioner on Friday reassigned the lab's longtime head, Det. Lt. James Granelle, who also led the lab during its previous probation. County officials said they are moving quickly to address the problems and will hire an outside expert to find "root causes" and help with the transition to a modern lab led by a new - and, for the first time, civilian - director.

 

Credibility at stake

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What is at stake now, officials say, is the credibility of the lab itself, which has handled evidence in tens of thousands of cases, both closed and ongoing, at the heart of the county's criminal justice process. State and accreditation officials are raising the specter that the lab could be shuttered, and evidence sent out to other labs, if the department fails to meet special probation conditions.

The new report "greatly impacts the credibility of any witness who is providing testimony on the reliability of any test results emanating from the lab," said Kevin Keating, a criminal defense attorney. Last week, as news of the probation spread among criminal defense lawyers, several said they already were considering how past convictions or current criminal cases might be challenged.

None of the 17 "essential" violations found in 2006 were repeated among the 15 in that category found last month. But some oversight officials said the lab's troubled history raises fundamental questions about its management. As few as five failures in essential protocols "would be cause for concern," said Ralph Keaton, executive director of the accrediting agency, the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors/Laboratory Accreditation Board.

The violations found in 2006, included lab instruments used to examine physical evidence not being calibrated. Without proper controls, an instrument could give a false reading or incorrect weight of a seized drug, for example. That, in turn, could affect the severity of a charge. The 17 findings triggered the state's first lab probation and the suspension of some services.

With the lab still under probation in April 2007, inspectors documented a failed effort to have a suspension on hair analysis lifted.

"[T]hree mock cases were analyzed by the person who was providing this service when the laboratory suspended the examination of hair," the report states. Conclusions by an outside examiner made on two of three samples "differed significantly" from the Nassau examiner's.

While noting insufficient corrections to resume hair analysis, Keaton wrote to Granelle in May 2007 saying the probation was lifted. He commended Granelle for "promptly taking the steps necessary to regain this good standing."

"The laboratory is self-identifying issues in the quality system and taking the appropriate corrective actions," the report states. The agency re-accredited the lab in February 2008.

A spokesman for Nassau District Attorney Kathleen Rice said Friday that her office "was never formally, nor informally, made aware that the lab was on probation in 2006."

 

'A serious problem'

At a meeting last Tuesday of the state Commission on Forensic Science - which oversees state accreditation of crime labs - one commission member, Onondaga County District Attorney William Fitzpatrick, said he spoke with Rice after learning of the findings early last week.

"She said if the lab was closed down it would be a disaster, but she understands the gravity of the situation," he said.

Asked about that statement, a Rice spokesman said, "Of course the closing of the lab would be a serious problem, but even in light of the prior inspections, the commission does not deem it necessary to close the lab at this time."

In an interview Friday, Police Commissioner Lawrence Mulvey, who was appointed in 2007, said the department was working urgently to find out what went wrong and what could be fixed immediately. He said "sloppiness" at the lab, and a high turnover in many department leadership posts - though not in the lab - likely contributed to a lack of proper oversight.

"We're not going to whitewash it and run from it and make excuses," he said. But, voicing confidence in the lab's results despite the problems, he said: "None of these deficiencies speak to the scientific product being defective or inaccurate." Mulvey said it was still unclear what, if anything, was communicated to the DA's office about the 2006 probation, and that department heads are trying to answer that question.

Mulvey and Rice last week formed a committee consisting of four department heads and two assistant district attorneys to hire an outside consultant to oversee fixes and help the department "fast track" the lab's move into a new facility in Westbury.

The consultant is also expected to review the lab's troubled history to determine exactly what led to the new probation. The committee will also hire a new permanent director, Mulvey said.

 

Lawyers watch closely

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Meanwhile, defense attorneys are watching the review closely. William Kephart, president of the Nassau Criminal Courts Bar Association, said he had asked a Nassau judge for an adjournment for a defendant who had been ready to accept a plea deal on a felony drug possession charge.

"I can't in good conscience accept this lab report," said Kephart, who called last week for the lab to be closed while the problems were addressed. "Either the district attorney is going to look into the lab and provide answers to all of this or independent testing has to be done to confirm it is what you say it is."

State officials also have taken notice. Acting Commissioner Sean Byrne of the state Division for Criminal Justice Services drafted a letter last week outlining concerns by the state Committee on Forensic Science, which issues a separate accreditation to crime labs but relies on the national accreditation board for inspections.

That letter will call for a special review of the Nassau lab, and will note that failure to correct the problems could result in a vote to suspend operations there, a spokeswoman for the agency said.

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