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Thousands of Rockefeller Drug Law Convictions in New York Could Be Challenged Due to Tainted Evidence

Officials recently shut down part of the Nassau County Crime Lab because it was discovered that a half-dozen drug cases had been subjected to incorrect analyses.
 
 
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Officials recently shut down part of the Nassau County Crime Lab because it was discovered that a half-dozen drug cases had been subjected to incorrect analyses. DA Rice is now forced to retest all drug cases, including sales and possession, dating back from 2007.  The number of cases is startling.  It is estimated that 4,000 drug convictions would have to be reviewed. DA Rice has called on an outside agency to retest them.

Experts say that it is very hard or impossible to prosecute cases that involve the dealing and possession of drugs when an incorrect analysis is conducted.  Attorneys for defendants say that innocent people could have been jailed because of this.  William Gibney, a lawyer with the Legal Aid Society who was instrumental in reforming the Rockefeller Drug Laws, said “these convictions have a serious problem.”

DA Rice said her office is prepared to give information about cases affected to defense attorneys but it will be up to defendants and their lawyers to request re-testing.  But when I asked Roland Acevedo, a practicing criminal defense attorney based in NYC, he told me that “a prosecutor has a responsibility to do the right thing.  The DA’s office should take the steps to notify all potential defendants or their counsel who may be impacted by the discovery of this incident.”

In an appearance on Good Day New York on Wednesday, DA Rice admitted that it possible that an individual currently in jail may not belong there due to problems in the drug testing lab. "We believe there may be errors in the quantitative analysis. A lot of drugs are cut with other substances," said Rice.

According to news sources, the lab troubles were known but unreported. The problems started back in December of 2010 when the Mineola crime lab at police headquarters was placed on probation. A state forensic oversight agency found 15 serious failures to comply with storing and testing procedures. 

 The Nassau County DA has said that that only 16 defense motions seeking judicial reviews or reopening of drug cases have been filed.  But this is undermining the magnitude of the problem. If the crime lab was tainted for dozens, the scandal is likely much larger than just the sixteen cases identified so far. Just last year, the crime lab in San Francisco was shut down because of evidence tampering and theft of drugs from the lab. The scandal undermined public trust in both the police and the office of the prosecutor.

Defense attorneys believe that this is just the beginning and the discovery of many cases will occur that could in theory lead to procuring new trials for a majority of those convicted by the tainted evidence. New trials are a very costly procedure, especially at a time when Nassau County’s economic health is so bad the state has seized control of the county’s finances.

DA Rice recently ran for Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s former position as state Attorney General, and in appearance after appearance she strongly defended her support of the Rockefeller Drug Law reforms. What will happen if hundreds or thousands of people are found to be wrongfully convicted because of tainted evidence?  Will DA Rice pursue justice for dozens, hundreds, perhaps thousands of people who may be wrongfully incarcerated? Can Nassau County afford retrials? And can New York afford to allow people wrongfully convicted to remain incarcerated? Stay tuned.

Anthony Papa, author of 15 To Life: How I Painted My Way To Freedom , is a communications specialist for the Drug Policy Alliance .

 
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