Nassau Police Commissioner Lawrence Mulvey is questioned by the legislature...

Nassau Police Commissioner Lawrence Mulvey is questioned by the legislature about the troubled Nassau Police Crime Lab. (Dec. 15, 2010) Credit: Howard Schnapp

Sloppy work by Nassau's crime lab is unlikely to set off a flood of suits claiming wrongful convictions, legal experts say.

Ever since the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors placed the lab on probation on Dec. 3 for poor procedures, some attorneys have speculated past convictions might be in jeopardy.

But most prison inmates don't have the money to hire attorneys to try to undo convictions, the experts say. And it won't be easy to pin convictions on crime lab mistakes.

The accrediting group found 15 serious violations at the lab, including maintenance and calibration of equipment that measures blood alcohol. That made the lab the only such facility in the country on probation. The lab was also placed on probation in 2006.

Still, Daniel Medwed, a board member of The Innocence Network , said defense attorneys will have to prove the lab made mistakes in their clients' cases.

"It's not as if this is going to open up the prison door to a flood of inmates," said Medwed, who also teaches law at the University of Utah.

And, Medwed said, even if the lab mishandled evidence in certain cases, eyewitnesses who testified at trial might have been more important in influencing verdicts.

Gene O'Donnell, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan, agreed.

"If there's three eyewitnesses pointing you out, and a fingerprint, it's going to be hard to get your case thrown out, even if there are questions about the fingerprint," O'Donnell said.

Still, it is possible some convictions could be overturned. Last month, a spokesman for District Attorney Kathleen Rice said a system was being established to review old and current cases possibly affected by the lab problems.

In Houston, a panel started reviewing 180 cases in 2007 after numerous crime lab problems were detected there. Six inmates have been released.

One such defendant, who had gone to prison for cocaine possession, was represented by Patrick McCann, a Houston defense attorney. A review found the Houston lab failed to determine that the "cocaine" was actually a non-drug look-alike.

Joel Rudin, a Manhattan attorney, said about 98 percent of defendants have no access to a lawyer after losing on appeal - either because they don't have the money or can't get court-appointed legal help.

"Courts are not very receptive to appointing counsel for indigents who have lost their appeals," Rudin said.

Rudin helped a jailed Bronx teacher win a $5 million settlement from New York City in 2003, when a judge found a prosecutor withheld evidence and vacated his conviction of raping a girl at a day care center.

Rudin predicted Nassau cases with the best chances of being halted or overturned because of lab problems will be those awaiting trial or sentencing.

With Carl MacGowan

Latest videos