An independent agency will review an estimated 4,000 drug cases in Nassau County after officials from the medical examiner's office uncovered errors at the police crime lab, officials announced Tuesday.While prosecutors are saying that the problems were confined to the crime lab's handling of drug and alcohol evidence, defense lawyers aren't so sure, and there is enough evidence of wrongdoing at the lab to warrant further investigations to make sure that people were not wrongly convicted based on tainted evidence.
Nassau's county executive closed the drug testing section of that crime lab last week.
"No one is more upset about this than I," said District Attorney Kathleen Rice. She added that independent experts will examine both the quantity and quality of drugs entered into evidence in the thousand of cases under review.
Then came the question that hangs over law enforcement in Nassau. Could people in prison be released? Rise said she isn't sure, and that authorities will "look at this on a case by case basis."
The possibility does exist, defense lawyers contended, that innocent people have been jailed in drug cases based on faulty evidence from the lab.
Already, 16 defense motions seeking judicial reviews or reopening of drug cases have been filed, according to the DA. More are likely.
"The credibility of the entire lab has been undermined," said Marc Gann, president of the Nassau county Bar Association. Gann has called for the closing of the entire lab.
For instance, it is possible that defendants were found to possess a given quantity of illegal drugs - but because the crime lab didn't properly calibrate scales or measures, the wrong levels were determined - affecting the potential charges and sentencing.
The problems began coming to light last December, when inconsistencies were found and an independent national organization found serious violations in procedure at the crime lab.
A national organization found 15 serious failures to comply with storing and testing procedures.
The violations included unsecured storage of evidence and an uncalibrated instrument used to determine alcohol content.
So far six of nine drug related cases have shown error in testing, and last week the drug chemistry section of the county's crime lab was shut down.
Defense lawyers believe this is just the tip if the iceberg.
Brian Griffin is one of many attorneys asking for his client's conviction to be set aside.
In some cases, actual prisoners could be set free.
Rice's plan to prevent that includes retesting by an outside consultant.
It will include all felonies, which is some 2,700 samples.
She also wants to retest a 10% random sample from each technician's caseload.
"You are talking about taking away peoples freedom, you better do it right and get it right and that's not a lot to ask," Griffin said.