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Minor setback for new Nassau County crime lab

A national accrediting agency found during a recent assessment visit to the new Nassau County crime lab that officials there failed to check the accuracy of equipment they bought to test DNA evidence.

At its December visit, ASCLD/LAB -- a North Carolina accrediting agency -- said county officials did not test pipettes they bought in 2014.

"New pipettes purchased in 2014 that are used for extraction and amplification were not performance checked prior to being put into use," an American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors/Laboratory Accreditation Board report states.

Pipettes are narrow tubes that measure or extract fluids. ASCLD/LAB requires labs to calibrate pipettes after delivery to ensure accuracy.

The Nassau medical examiner oversees the county's new crime lab. The county has earned accreditation for various functions and is seeking approval for its DNA section.

While ASCLD/LABS' recent findings about the lab temporarily stalled its efforts to win DNA accreditation, officials said they are now back on track after submitting a corrective plan for the facility.

Nassau officials shut down the county's old police crime lab in 2011 because it failed to adhere to ASCLD/LAB standards. The agency found in 2010 that problems with the lab's evidence testing threatened the outcome of criminal cases.

In one instance, the agency said, the old police lab used a pipettor -- similar to a pipette -- that had not been calibrated for several years to test for blood alcohol in drunken driving cases.

Brian Gestring, director of the state's Office of Forensic Services, said the 2010 pipettor problem had the potential to cause false blood alcohol test results.

While that 2010 pipettor problem was serious, Gestring said, the current pipette issue is minor.

The use of uncalibrated pipettes for DNA testing would be detected by other indicators that would signal lab personnel to repeat the process, Gestring said.

"It's apples and oranges," he said.

Michael Balboni, a former state senator who heads a board appointed by County Executive Edward Mangano to oversee the accreditation of the new lab, said none of the pipettes questioned by ASCLD/LAB in December was actually used to test DNA.

"They were on the shelf," Balboni said.

He said the lab recently had the pipettes calibrated to ensure accuracy.

He said when the lab received them the vendor provided a statement that they met required standards. The lab did not know it was required to test the pipettes after receipt, Balboni said.

"Given the past history of serious problems at the Nassau County police crime lab, even minor deviations from the best practices should be promptly corrected," said Richard Collins, a Mineola defense attorney who is secretary of the Nassau County Bar Association.

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