A judge ordered a new trial Monday for a Hicksville woman convicted of drunken driving, citing last month’s closure of the Nassau County crime lab because of inaccuracies with drug analysis and subsequent revelations that some blood-alcohol testing had been mislabeled.
The decision, defense attorneys said, could open the way for hundreds, if not thousands, of those convicted of crimes in the county to seek new trials. The state inspector general was appointed in late February to investigate problems at the lab, which was placed on probation three months ago by a national accrediting group for the second time since 2006.
It is the only lab in the country on probation.
Noting that District Attorney Kathleen Rice publicly questioned the lab results herself when she ordered it shut, Nassau County Court Judge George Peck questioned the defense of a disputed conviction.
How, he asked, could prosecutors “publicly give a vote of no confidence to the laboratory results, and then in good conscience argue in a court of law that the factors which form the basis of no confidence be excluded?”
A spokeswoman for Rice said she was not immediately available to comment, but prosecutors were expected to appeal Peck’s decision.
Peck, who had found Erin Marino guilty of aggravated vehicular assault and driving while intoxicated in an August 2010 bench trial, set a preliminary date for a new trial of March 21. He said a jury should decide what factor questions about lab results played in the 30-year-old woman’s case.
Marino was not in court for the decision, but her lawyer said it likely opens the possibility for additional challenges to recent convictions by other defendants.
“I don’t think anyone really realized the extent of the problems of the crime lab,” defense attorney Brian Griffin told reporters following the decision. “I mean what we’ve learned, what we’ve uncovered over the last couple of weeks is remarkable. What’s clear by the judge’s decision is that the problems have been going on for years.”
In December, the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors/Laboratory Accreditation Board placed the lab on probation, and Nassau officials transferred lab supervision from the police department to the medical examiner’s office, which began reviewing all operations. Revelations surfaced that examiners were producing inaccurate measurements in drug cases involving ecstasy and ketamine.
Officials later learned that police supervisors were aware of those drug analysis problems months before the lab was put on probation.
Besides analyzing drugs, the lab handles ballistics, blood-alcohol and other police evidence, ranging from homicide investigations to larcenies. Evidence in all current cases is being sent to an independent lab for analysis.
Prosecutors then revealed last week that paperwork errors occurred in nine blood-alcohol tests in drunken-driving cases on a single day last fall; the wrong test results were attached to some defendants’ files.
The lab’s interim director has cited staffing shortages for some of the problems and immediately began recruiting new technicians.
William Kephart, president of the county’s Criminal Courts Bar Association, said Peck’s ruling opens the way for many other defense attorneys to challenge their clients’ convictions. He applauded the decision to close the lab, but says the results remain suspect.
“Do not use anything from this lab until it is independently verified and found to be reliable,” Kephart said. “You took good action, you shut down the lab. Now don’t use those results.”
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.