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Crime lab woes may choke Nassau courts

Nassau's courts may soon be choked with traffic from lawyers seeking to undo DWI guilty verdicts against their clients, legal experts said Monday.

Judge George Peck's decision to set aside the guilty verdict for Erin Marino of Hicksville because of sloppy evidence-testing at the county police crime lab could spur a steady stream of legal wrangling in other driving while intoxicated cases, tying up judges already burdened by heavy caseloads, some of the experts said.

"I would not be surprised if the Nassau County courts were deluged within a month," said University of Utah law professor Daniel Medwed, a nationally recognized expert in wrongful convictions. "This decision will provide an incentive for other defendants to file similar motions. The whole issue is scientific evidence."

When told about Peck's decision, Texas defense attorney Patrick McCann said Nassau's shoddy testing practices rival a scandal that erupted at the Houston crime laboratory about a decade ago.

As in Nassau, Houston's problems grew steadily and eventually included questionable blood typing, DNA workups and drug testing. Some prisoners were set free because of the resulting doubts about evidence.

"It sounds like exactly the same thing all over again," said McCann, former president of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association. One of McCann's clients got out of jail as a result of the Houston scandal.

"The crime lab scandal, in general, has the potential to reopen a number of cases," said Brandon Garrett, a law professor who specializes in criminal procedures and wrongful convictions at the University of Virginia. "Each small ruling like this will start to have an impact."

Garrett said all cases thrown into doubt by shoddy practices at the lab should be examined by the courts.

But Gene O'Donnell, a professor of law and police studies at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan, said many people probably won't have enough money to hire lawyers to mount legal challenges to drunken driving convictions.

"The question will be how widespread, how many cases are thrown into doubt," O'Donnell said. "It [Peck's decision] suggests there's going to be some significant traffic to submit motions."

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