Editorial: Nassau lab cleanup a big task

Tim Foley illustration Tim Foley illustration

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The consequences of the disastrous manner in which the Nassau County police crime laboratory operated are becoming clear, though the total damage won't be tallied for years.

Last week a Nassau judge set aside the cocaine conviction of Khurram Shahzad, 27, of Queens, after prosecutors agreed to a motion by Shahzad's lawyers to have the verdict thrown out because of faulty lab procedures. The jury that convicted Shahzad in 2010 after cocaine was found in the glove compartment of his car did so wrongly because it was not told of the problems at the lab, defense attorneys argued.

No matter what really happened in the Shahzad case, the mess at the crime lab caused an injustice. If Shahzad is innocent, the 500 days he spent incarcerated are a travesty. If he is guilty, and out on the streets undeservingly, that's also bad.

Nassau judges have also thrown out at least two drunken-driving convictions, citing the unreliability of Nassau crime lab findings, since the facility was closed in February 2011 and taken to task in a scathing report by the state inspector general. And a Hempstead man was released from prison last fall after prosecutors found the lab had misweighed the drugs in his case. Nwakanma Ochei, 27, had served 18 months in prison for a felony charge when prosecutors sent the cocaine in his case for retesting and found only misdemeanor weight. Prosecutors say he had been recharged and the case was pending when he was hit and killed Feb. 21 by a subway train in Manhattan.

About half of more than 3,000 felony samples have already been retested at a private lab. The cost for the retests will be about $1 million, and more money will be allocated to check some samples from misdemeanor cases. The money comes from the Nassau County Police Department forfeiture funds, assets seized in criminal cases. The cash otherwise would have been used for training, equipment, anti-crime programs for kids and other good causes. Those accounts, with a combined balance of $1.7 million at the end of 2011, aren't hurting for money, but officials agree they could have found a better use for it than paying for drug tests made necessary by a poorly run, badly supervised police-staffed lab.

And out of $140,000 set aside by the New York State Office of Indigent Legal Services to help convicts who can't afford lawyers challenge convictions related to the lab, not one penny has been dispersed. County Attorney John Ciampoli has said locating convicts who might be eligible for the funds has been difficult.

The crime lab is supposed to reopen in a new facility, staffed by civilians and overseen by the county's medical examiner. When that happens, the procedures and the supervision must be unfailingly professional and excellent. And before that can happen -- before the department and the new lab can begin building trust -- the problems caused by the breakdown of the old lab have to be addressed. Informing convicts of the assistance they are entitled to and helping them get it is a responsibility of the county. Failing to do so doesn't bode well for a future that's any better than the past.

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