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State panel moves toward crime lab reform

The Nassau County Crime Lab in Mineola. (December

The Nassau County Crime Lab in Mineola. (December 2010) Credit: NCPD

More than a year after the New York inspector general reported on systemic failures and botched evidence testing at the now-shuttered Nassau County police crime lab, a state commission Wednesday took steps to implement better oversight of forensic facilities statewide.

The New York State Commission on Forensic Science agreed at a meeting in Manhattan to evaluate accreditation groups that inspect such labs as it moved toward comprehensive crime lab reform.

Nassau closed its police crime lab after revelations of serious evidence testing errors, including drug analysis, emerged in 2010.

While the commission currently uses ASCLD/LAB to accredit forensic labs, the North Carolina accrediting agency has come under fire for allowing Nassau's police lab to continue operating until December 2010 despite evidence of testing mistakes that were uncovered before that.

The commission has not decided whether to continue using ASCLD/LAB to inspect New York's labs.

"The time has come to really take a look at the reports we get from ASCLD/LAB," said commissioner Barry Scheck, a Manhattan defense attorney who is an expert in wrongful conviction. "We can't look at the Nassau situation and pretend that they didn't let us down."

The commission also voted to adopt recommendations by former state Inspector General Ellen Biben in her November 2011 report calling for minimum standards for evidence testing and quality assurance at the new forensic lab -- now run by the medical examiner's office.

The Biben report also called for greater transparency in disclosing evidence-testing problems that arise. County officials have already implemented those recommendations.

Acting Inspector General Catherine Leahy-Scott, who was involved in Biben's probe of the Nassau lab, said she was pleased with the commission's actions.

"There is real consensus going on," Leahy-Scott said after the meeting. "This current commission is active and engaged in a manner that is going to keep the state of New York in the forefront of forensic science."

The commission also moved to establish committees to study how to implement Biben's recommendations for mandatory continuing education for lab analysts and certification for all forensic analysts.

Nassau plans to put out a request for bids in January for construction of a new lab to replace the shuttered police facility.

The new lab, operating under the auspices of the medical examiner, is to be built within the county's existing public safety center building in Westbury.

In November 2011, Nassau lawmakers approved $3.87 million for design and construction services to build the new lab.

Michael Balboni, who heads the advisory board overseeing the conversion of the old police lab into a facility run by civilian scientists, said, "The county executive is committed to building a strategy that makes the [new lab] facility a foundation for the fair administration of justice in this county."

Pasquale Buffolino, the official in the Nassau medical examiner's office responsible for overseeing the new lab, told the commission he hopes construction will begin as early as spring 2013.

But Balboni said in an interview he doesn't expect construction to begin until late next year.

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