What to Know
Proposed changes to Nassau County’s much anticipated crime lab has some questioning the county’s commitment to prosecuting crimes
The new lab was meant to solve issues with the old one, which lost accreditation after flawed forensic analysis got convictions tossed
In March, the lab director said ballistic and trace evidence may not move to the new crime lab location; that sparked some backlash
Proposed changes to Nassau County’s much anticipated crime lab has some questioning the county’s commitment to prosecuting crimes. These changes were laid out by the head of Nassau’s crime lab at a hearing held by the Commission on Forensic Science.
Lab director Pat Buffolino was asked to brief commissioners on the status of the crime lab. It was supposed to open in a state-of-the-art building in December 2017, but never did. At a March 13 hearing, Buffolino told commissioners the county was going to split the space held by the crime lab with the public health department -- and that disciplines like ballistic and trace evidence may not make the move to the new location.
"I’m not in panic mode, but I’m concerned about what I’m hearing," said commissioner William Fitzpatrick who is also the district attorney in Onondaga County, New York.
"I know, they want to shave off a few bucks,” Fitzpatrick added. "This is the engine that runs the criminal justice system in Nassau County. And they got to understand that.”
The new lab was built after the county lost accreditation in 2011, when several convictions were overturned because of flawed forensic analysis methods.
“I have clients that came through that system,” said defense attorney Brian Griffin. “And had evidence used against them that was found not to be the quality it should have been."
As a result, Griffin represented several clients whose cases were thrown out because of shoddy forensics work. Since these problems in 2011, the county has been outsourcing crime lab work. While it is not clear how much the county has spent on this, one vendor that does drug and toxicology testing has been paid $2.3 million in the past three years according to county records.
Officials have touted the new crime lab as an answer to the problems of the previous lab. The county executive now projects an opening in mid-May, about a year and a half behind schedule.
Nassau County District Attorney Madeline Singas told the I-Team, “We are working with County Executive Curran’s office to ensure that the new state-of-the-art laboratory is not only in full compliance with every accreditation agency, but is also viewed as a national leader in forensic testing."
Some doubt the revamped Nassau crime lab can be viewed as a leader in testing without ballistics or trace evidence testing.
The I-Team asked Nassau County Executive Laura Curran for comment, and she responded by providing a letter addressed to the Commission on Forensic Science.
"The County did explore providing space within this facility for the Health Department’s testing needs, however, we have determined that the space does not meet these needs," that letter said.
As for the ballistics and trace evidence analysis portions of the lab, Curran wrote, "We are in the process of evaluating the most fiscally responsible manner in which to proceed with these two disciplines."
The defense attorney, Griffin, says all the red tape boils down to a simple question.
"Are we committed to a crime lab?" he asked. "This is the ability for people who are wrongly charged to be exonerated and people who are correctly charged to be prosecuted."