Something’s Rotten in the Crime Lab

by ANTHONY PAPA

On February 18, 2011 the Nassau County Crime lab was closed down because of grave concerns about the integrity of testing evidence.  A multitude of errors were found to be committed that jeopardized thousands of cases. It was estimated that 3,000 drug convictions might have to be reviewed.   This followed the labs probation initiated by the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors/Laboratory Accreditation Board (ASCLD/LAB) on December 10, 2010 when an inspection report was issued condemning its practices.  It was the second time in 4 years that the lab was put on probation.

The closing of the lab brought shock waves to the office of District Attorney Kathleen Rice, who focused on damage control. She had claimed she even did not know of that the Nassau County Crime Lab was under suspension. But soon after, the truth, severity and magnitude of the problem was revealed. Thus Governor Andrew Cuomo was forced to step in to protect the public’s confidence in the criminal justice system ,he appointed Inspector General Ellen Biben to lead an investigation.

Just last week  Inspector General Biben issued a scathing 170 page report criticizing officials — including the police department — and blaming District Attorney Kathleen Rice for not knowing about the problems earlier.  In the report I.G. Biben scolds Nassau County officials, arguing that the lab suffered from “weak leadership, a dysfunctional quality management system, analysts with inconsistent training and qualifications, and outdated and incomplete testing procedures.”

 

“The chronic failures of the Nassau County crime lab deprived Nassau County, the criminal justice system and the public of their right to have complete and unfettered confidence in forensic testing,” I.G. Biben told the Associated Press. But the inspector general’s most scathing criticism was for the police department itself. The report said problems were “exacerbated” because top police officials were not “appropriately attentive” to the Forensics Evidence Bureau, even though there were many warning signs of failures.

 

Biben’s report is important, but the fact remains that the report raises more questions that require urgent attention. First, no one has been held accountable for the labs demise and the report states that despite the lab’s problems, no one had committed any criminal wrongdoing. Second – and most importantly — the report states along with its a press release that as a result of the errors, as many as 10 percent of all criminal drug tests performed at the lab were problematic.  In reality what this means is that potentially several hundred cases have been tainted by the testing procedures used by the lab. What is going to happen to the individuals who are currently serving prison sentences based on problematic evidence?  Will justice be served and their cases be re-evaluated? Or will their cases be swept under the rug and be forgotten through the rhetoric of crime and politics?

 

No one should be rotting away in prison sentenced from a crime based on tainted evidence. Governor Cuomo who has supported Rockefeller drug law reform in the past, should take the next step to ensure that justice is realized not just in the crime labs of Nassau County, but in the prisons where Nassau County residents may now be incarcerated as a result of this growing scandal.

Anthony Papa is the author of 15 to Life and the Manager of Media Relations for the Drug Policy Alliance.

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