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Suffolk DA warns defense lawyers of crime lab error

Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota on Sept.

Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota on Sept. 20, 2013. Photo Credit: Joseph D. Sullivan

The office of Suffolk District Attorney Thomas Spota has informed defense attorneys that a county crime lab analyst incorrectly weighed a substance retrieved as evidence in a narcotics case.

The crime lab error has triggered a review to determine whether the same analyst made similar mistakes in other criminal cases.

The weight of drug evidence in a narcotics case can mean the difference between felony and misdemeanor charges, which in turn can affect sentencing.

"The chemist correctly analyzed the nature of the substance, but was in error as to the weight of the item," Assistant District Attorney Emma Pearce wrote in an Oct. 17 letter to defense attorneys.

Pearce stated in the letter that she was advising attorneys about the mistake "for whatever action you and your client deem appropriate."

A copy of the letter obtained by Newsday neither identified the defendant nor any legal counsel retained by the defendant, so they could not be contacted for comment.

Robert Clifford, a spokesman for the district attorney's office, said Thursday, "Because of an error made by a crime lab chemist during the weighing of evidence in a pending narcotics case, this office requested that all items handled by the chemist be reweighed. In the interest of full disclosure, we formally notified defense attorneys representing defendants in cases that have been processed by this analyst to advise them of the chemist's error in this single case."

Suffolk crime lab director Robert Genna said he was "not sure" if he had received a copy of the letter and had no comment.

Garden City defense attorney Scott Gross said he received two copies of the letter.

Gross has written to Pearce requesting more information but said he has not received a reply.

"It's always disturbing any time a prosecutor is admitting there is a problem, but not giving specific information about what the problem is," Gross said Thursday. "All we're looking for is full disclosure."

Janine Kava, a spokeswoman for the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services, said lab officials had notified the agency's Office of Forensic Services about the incident, as required.

"The notification was made within the required time frame," Kava said.

Kava said the required reporting period was "within 30 days of discovering any issues that affect the quality of a lab's work or its management."

On Oct. 24 -- a week after Pearce notified defense attorneys about the weight error -- crime lab director Genna appeared in Manhattan to tell the New York State Forensic Commission about a recent problem at the Suffolk lab.

The commission is an arm of the state criminal justice division and regularly handles disclosures about mistakes made by analysts at forensic labs throughout the state.

It is unclear whether the problem Genna discussed at the commission meeting was related to the weight discrepancy in the narcotics case because the commission met privately in executive session. Such meetings are usually held to discuss personnel matters.

Newsday has learned that among the topics discussed in the executive session was an alleged failure by a Suffolk lab employee to report in a timely manner issues related to acceptable operating standards.

The lab, which falls under the auspices of the medical examiner, is supposed to report deviations from established operating standards set by the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors/Laboratory Accreditation Board in Garner, North Carolina.

ASCLD/LAB accredits crime labs across the country.

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