Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice (Sept. 14, 2006)

Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice (Sept. 14, 2006) Credit: Newsday File / Ed Betz

The Nassau crime lab's narcotics section will be shut indefinitely because of errors in drug testing and an independent firm will be hired to do its work.

County Executive Edward Mangano, in a statement late Thursday, said he and District Attorney Kathleen Rice agreed the drug chemistry section's immediate shutdown was essential because retests of nine drug samples analyzed from 2007 to 2009 revealed errors in the lab's work.

"Until further notice, forensic analysis of narcotics will be conducted by an independent agency," Mangano said, adding he has ordered investigation of the errors' "root cause." New staff will be hired for the section and police officers who work there will be reassigned, he said.

Mangano's statement came after Rice called Thursday for the narcotics section's closure. William Kephart, president of Nassau County Criminal Courts Bar Association, went further, repeating that group's stance that all lab testing should be suspended.

Rice, in her statement, said "recent developments make it impossible for our prosecutors to offer narcotics evidence to the court with the fairness and integrity that I believe are required of us. . . . Unless and until the county is capable of providing the appropriate staffing, equipment and updated procedures, they must send the evidence to an independent lab."

Lab officials had said the problems may have caused some defendants to face stiffer charges than they should. Rice said six of the cases, involving the drugs ecstasy and ketamine, were the subject of inaccurate test results.

The troubled crime laboratory was run by the police department until the county medical examiner's office took it over in December, with Dr. Pasquale Buffolino named as director. It was put on probation late last year by a national lab accreditation group, making it the only one of nearly 400 labs in the country to have that status. It was the second time since 2006 the lab was put on probation.

Buffolino, who is reviewing the lab and its problems for the county and also is director of laboratories for the Nassau medical examiner's office, said in a telephone interview that the narcotics section's shutdown will enable a "thorough investigation."

The county plans to quickly seek a private, accredited laboratory and contract with it to do drug testing work, he said.

Buffolino said Mangano sent an e-mail to him, Rice, the medical examiner and the police department indicating the shutdown of the lab's narcotics testing section is "effective immediately." That e-mail followed an earlier phone call in which Buffolino said he spoke with representatives of Mangano's and Rice's offices.

Buffolino said he does not agree the entire lab should be closed.

"I don't think that's necessary," he said. "I think we've made excellent improvements that are necessary and are still ongoing. We have a re-inspection date planned for mid-May. I think we've made good headway."

The retesting of nine samples that spurred Thursday's action was undertaken as part of a review of lab results by Buffolino. Ketamine and ecstasy testing was not reviewed by the national accreditation agency.

Suffolk's tests showed Nassau incorrectly measured the purity and amount of drugs in pills seized by police, officials said. That means some defendants charged with a felony should have been charged with a misdemeanor, while others were charged with too high a felony, Buffolino said Wednesday.

Marc Gann, a criminal lawyer and president of the Nassau County Bar Association, said he initially did not believe the lab's troubles would result in many past convictions being overturned. Now he is reconsidering.

"To me it is a complete and total undermining of the credibility of the lab," said Gann, who was speaking on his own behalf and not for the bar association as a whole. "It really shakes the foundation of the credibility of the lab."

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