Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano has announced that the county medical examiner will take control of the county's besieged police crime laboratory, and that the 21 police officers who work there will be replaced over time by civilian scientists.
Mangano also announced Tuesday that Peter Pizzola, a former assistant commissioner of the New York City Police Department Crime Laboratory, has been hired as an independent contractor to oversee the lab overhaul.
"This move will restore the public's faith in our crime lab," Mangano said at a news conference in Mineola. The medical examiner, Dr. Pasquale Buffalino, said he welcomed his new duties and will seek to "re-establish a quality system" and "appease the criminal justice system."
Pizzola will report to the committee formed by Nassau Police Commissioner Lawrence Mulvey on Friday to oversee the lab overhaul. Officials said he will work "hand in hand" with Buffalino.
Nassau police spokesman Kevin Smith said Pizzola was instrumental in correcting deficiencies at the New York City crime lab between 2005 and 2007. Smith said Pizzola's contract has not been finalized.
But the head of the Nassau Criminal Courts Bar Association said more action is needed. "It's a good first step, but woefully short," said William Kephart of Garden City. "They're staying in the same laboratory where there are humidity problems, problems with locks, and leaks on records."
Also Tuesday, the first of what may be many legal motions was filed asking a judge to throw out a drunken-driving conviction that the motion says was based on questionable lab tests.
"I think you can expect a floodgate of litigation and issues to arise," said William Petrillo, a Rockville Centre defense lawyer, who did not file the motion.
Mangano made the announcements about a week after a national lab accrediting agency informed the police department that the crime lab was on probation, the only one in the country in that status. The move was triggered by a November inspection that found 25 failures of "essential" or "important" protocols.
Putting the county medical examiner's office in charge of the crime lab ends a years-long discussion over who should control the lab, said Fred Klein, the Nassau district attorney's office's former Major Offense Bureau chief and now a law professor at Hofstra University. He said there has long been an argument over whether civilian scientists are more objective in handling evidence and are better qualified to do scientific testing than police.
On Friday, Mulvey reassigned the lab director, Det. Lt. James Granelle, and formed a committee of department heads and prosecutors to address the problems. Mulvey and Nassau District Attorney Kathleen Rice maintained they knew nothing about the lab problems before the most recent report was made public.
But Mulvey said he stands by the lab and plans to hire an outside agency to retest evidence in several cases to help prove lab results are sound.