Inspectors from a national accrediting agency sounded alarms about critical errors at the Nassau County police crime lab as far back as September 2005, but the same types of mistakes persisted five years later and, along with other errors, resulted in the facility's eventual closure.
A road map of events that led to the lab twice being placed on probation is contained in documents obtained by Newsday from the state Division of Criminal Justice Services under a Freedom of Information Law request.
The government reports and correspondence establish that the crime lab never regained its footing after 2005. In both 2005 and 2010, lapses at the lab included:
Lab employees -- civilians and police detectives -- not following protocols for testing blood and failing to label substances for analyzing drugs, possibly compromising test results.
Equipment not being maintained regularly to ensure accuracy.
Analysts failing proficiency exams or not being tested at all and a fingerprint examiner not having a necessary college degree.
County Executive Edward Mangano closed the lab in February and New York Inspector General Ellen Biben is investigating what went wrong. Biben's office has subpoenaed at least 100 people, including Mangano, former County Executive Thomas Suozzi, District Attorney Kathleen Rice, acting police Commissioner Thomas Krumpter and retired police Commissioner Lawrence Mulvey.
Concerns for defendants
As revelations about erroneous drug testing at the lab unfolded earlier this year, defense attorneys expressed concern that their clients' criminal cases might have been affected by inaccurate analyses. Now that Mangano has closed the lab, the county is sending drug testing in criminal cases to a private Pennsylvania lab, which is also retesting evidence going back three years in an attempt to ferret out any past inaccuracies.
County officials have placed the cost of outsourcing drug testing to the private lab at about $100,000 a month. The number of cases the lab handled was 5,709 in 2005 and 5,924 in 2010, according to the police department. Officials say the lab, including salaries, cost the taxpayers $3.2 million in 2005, and $2.7 million in 2010.
The records from 2005, made public for the first time, show that lab workers did not check whether substances used for testing illegal drugs worked properly. They also show an analyst hired to examine fire debris did not know how to use equipment for that purpose.
"In the controlled substances discipline [testing materials] were not routinely checked at laboratory required intervals," the inspectors wrote in the September 2005 report. "Appropriate controls and standards are not specified or consistently used in the identification of human blood."
As a result, the inspection agency -- ASCLD/LAB, the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors Laboratory Accreditation Board, a North Carolina organization that accredits crime labs for state agencies -- put the Nassau facility on probation in August 2006.
ASCLD/LAB inspects on a five-year cycle, recommending improvements and, if necessary, imposing sanctions like probation, suspension and loss of accreditation. In the past, New York State has also asked ASCLD/LAB to do inspections halfway through a five-year schedule. The 2005 review of the Nassau lab was a mid-cycle inspection.
After the 2005 findings, and the later 2006 probation, ASCLD/LAB had so many concerns that it sent back inspectors in April 2007 for an interim check of the lab that was not part of the regular inspection cycle.
"There were enough issues that were found in the previous inspection that we felt we needed to go in more often and make sure they were complying," ASCLD/LAB executive director Ralph Keaton said in an interview. "We felt for the integrity of the program that it was necessary to go back in and review."
Keaton said probation is "the lightest sanction," describing it as a period during which labs are expected to address their failings in order to comply with ASCLD/LAB standards.
"Probation means that a laboratory is still accredited but must comply with specific requirements that are issued by the board of directors," Keaton said. "Fix the problems is exactly what they're expected to do."
Probation is usually six months or less, Keaton said. The Nassau lab's first probation lasted about nine months and ended in May 2007.
Only one on 2010 probation
In December 2010, ASCLD/LAB inspectors again placed the Nassau lab on probation. It was the only one of nearly 400 such facilities nationwide that was placed on probation last year. The lab did not come off probation before it was closed.
"Without any sufficient, independent, scientific oversight, we only learn of problems when the crime lab has botched so many cases that it requires a complete overhaul," said Brandon Garrett, a University of Virginia law professor and a nationally recognized expert on unreliable forensic science practices.
Joseph Lo Piccolo, president of the Nassau County Criminal Courts Bar Association, blamed a lack of state and local supervision of the lab for the persistent errors.
"It certainly speaks to a lack of oversight on the county level, both the police department and the legislative and executive branches that fund the department," he said.
Katie Grilli-Robles, a spokeswoman for Mangano, who took office in 2010, had no comment on the 2005 report. Former lab director Det. Lt. James Granelle, who was reassigned after the probation last December, and who was the director in 2006 and 2010, did not return calls for comment.
Rice, who took office in 2006 and Suozzi, who was in office in 2005, declined to comment. Denis Dillon, Rice's predecessor as district attorney, died last year.
During the 2005 review, the ASCLD/LAB inspectors found that an analyst did not adhere to accepted standards for identifying human blood and used an unacceptable procedure to test evidence for vomit. She had been restricted from doing another part of her job called serology -- the testing of bodily fluids -- after failing a 2004 proficiency test, the records show.
Although lab officials reassigned the analyst from serology work after she failed the test, they permitted her to continue testing evidence for stains. State records show that after the 2005 ASCLD inspection, lab officials transferred her to the job of lab safety manager.
In a report received in April 2006 by the state Office of Forensic and Victim Services, part of the Division of Criminal Justice Services, Granelle described how the lab had dealt with the problems cited in the 2005 inspection report.
He wrote that, instead of trying to correct several mistakes, including the blood errors made by the biology analyst, the lab shut down two sections that examined fire debris and bodily fluids such as blood.
In the case of a worker hired in July 2005 to analyze fire debris, Granelle said in his report that the worker did not know how to use Nassau's lab equipment because she had used different instruments at her previous job. In October 2005, after the inspection report, the lab arranged training on the instruments for the analyst.
Granelle's report states there was no reason to continue to have a fire debris section since the lab hadn't done any such casework in 2005. When the fire debris section was temporarily closed, Granelle made the analyst the lab's quality manager, records show.
Grilli-Robles said the temporary suspension of the fire debris section later became permanent. Biology work was outsourced to the county medical examiner and fire debris was sent to New York State Police laboratories, she said.
On May 17, 2007, ASCLD/LAB ended the lab's probation. Five weeks later, the Division of Criminal Justice Services wrote Granelle a congratulatory letter telling him the lab had been reaccredited by ASCLD/LAB.