I-Team: Nassau County Ballistic Evidence May Have Been Compromised in 45 Cases: DA

Nassau County's district attorney has notified lawyers in 45 cases that their ballistics evidence may have been compromised after they were outsourced to a lab in Texas, the I-Team has learned. 

Much of Nassau's criminal evidence has been sent out of state for testing since the local police crime lab was shut down because of testing errors three years ago.

A letter to the defense lawyers said a technician at the lab "failed to identify a number of shell casings as coming from a particular weapon."

After his conclusions were challenged, the lab technician reexamined the evidence and changed his opinion, the letter said. 

Defense lawyers say they are dumbfounded that another significant testing error has occurred. 

"It raises the question as to their ability to test forensic evidence in criminal cases,” said attorney Martin Geduldig, who represents a convicted murderer whose evidence will now be retested as a result of the error.  “It’s one of the wealthiest counties in the country and they can't have an effective functioning police lab-forensics lab. To me it’s almost mind boggling."

Betty Cater was equally frustrated. Geduldig’s client, Herber Guzman, was convicted in October of murdering her son Stanley. Now she fears that the conviction could be compromised, or at least delayed. 

 "I thought it would have been all over by now. That's what I thought," Cater said. 

County officials closed the police lab in 2011 after it was placed on probation because of concerns over the handling of evidence and other deficiencies. Nine months later, then-state Inspector General Ellen Biben issued a 170-page report criticizing officials for failing to act on signs that the lab was rife with problems.

Since then, the county medical examiner’s office has overseen testing of some evidence in criminal cases. Ballistics and drug tests are still sent to out-of-state facilities at a cost of about $500,000 a year, officials said. 

In the current case, a technician at that lab made a testing error -- failing to identify which weapon a number of shell casings came from. Prosecutors say it was an isolated incident. But it was significant enough that they are voluntarily retesting all other evidence that technician handled.

Shams Tarek, a spokesman for Nassau District Attorney Kathleen Rice, said they are troubled by the new testing error, but they are retesting evidence out of an “abundance of caution.” 

“We were upset to learn of a mistake having been made and that’s exactly why we took the steps we did  -- to restore confidence that lab results will be accurate and reliable and that that accuracy and reliability do not come at any cost to taxpayers.”

When the police lab closed, officials vowed to build a new and better facility. But there is still no sign of one.

Michael Balboni, a former Long Island state senator who is heading the crime lab project, said the county should break ground on the $40 million lab this summer.  

"We have a lab that has been approved by the county legislature, money's in place," Balboni said. 

"This is an effort to build a state of the art crime lab to ensure those mistakes don't happen."

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