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Nassau Police to tap expert for troubled lab

A file photo of the members of the

A file photo of the members of the the New York State Commission on Forensic Science. (Dec. 7, 2010) Photo Credit: Craig Ruttle

The Nassau County Police Department will hire an independent expert to help overhaul the police crime lab, where a recent accreditation review uncovered dozens of failures with evidence handling and documentation, among other problems.

The announcement Thursday came the same day the county's bar association of criminal-defense lawyers demanded that the district attorney close the lab immediately and form an independent commission to investigate.

"To do otherwise would invite suspect convictions at best, and potentially wrongful convictions at worst," said Nassau Criminal Courts Bar Association president William Kephart in a letter to District Attorney Kathleen Rice.

He said Rice should send evidence such as drugs, hair, fingerprints and firearms, usually processed at the police lab in Mineola, to labs in a neighboring county or elsewhere until the problems are fixed.

The letter was hand-delivered Thursday from the NCCBA to Rice and County Executive Edward Mangano.

The five-day inspection of the police lab by the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors/Laboratory Accreditation Board in November found 15 "essential" and 10 "important" failures to comply with forensic lab standards.

Thursday, Police Commissioner Lawrence Mulvey announced he will "hire an independent expert in the field to help resolve the issues," said department spokesman Det. Lt. Kevin Smith. "Additionally, he wants that person to delve deeper and try to address the underlying causes."

The consultant "will remain on board as we plan and execute the move to the new crime lab," Smith said.

A Rice spokeswoman said the police department decides where physical evidence is processed, and Rice has not yet decided to call for evidence to be outsourced. But she will review cases that may have relied on the lab.

"The DA is in the process of setting up a system to review old and current cases. The DA will absolutely be asking defense attorneys and experts to serve within that structure," said the spokeswoman, Carole Trottere. Mangano spokesman Michael Martino did not reply to requests for comment.

The Nassau lab is the only one in the country currently under probation or accreditation revocation out of nearly 400 accredited labs. It is also one of only two to have been on probation twice.

In light of the report, several Nassau defense lawyers said they are reviewing recent cases to determine if convictions might have depended on compromised evidence.

Brian Griffin, of Garden City, said "dozens" of his clients may have been charged based on suspect evidence.

"What makes this so alarming is that the problem isn't limited to a single area or lab tech, but truly questions all the work that's been put out," he said. He said he will look specifically at his drunken driving cases, since the report says the lab instrument used to determine blood alcohol levels has not been calibrated since 2007.

Marc Gann, a criminal-defense lawyer who is president of the Nassau County Bar Association, said the association has taken no position on the lab issue. But he said he too is reviewing his cases.

"I can't believe they have let this lab get into the condition that it apparently has," Gann, of Mineola, said. "When you're talking about putting people in jail, they're entitled to more than that."

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