Nassau Crime Lab Under Investigation - Rice's Troubles...

Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice yesterday asked a judge to designate Eric R. Dinallo, a former investigative bureau chief in the state attorney general's office, as a special prosecutor to look into "possible past impropriety" at the Nassau County Police Department's now-closed crime lab.

At a press conference yesterday, Ms. Rice said she did not know where the investigation would focus and did not want to "preordain" how it would proceed.

"We're talking of the entire lab's supervisory structure," she said, calling the prospect of compromised cases "incredibly troubling."

Ms. Rice said she had made an application to Nassau County Administrative Judge Anthony F. Marano to authorize the appointment of Mr. Dinallo, who is now a partner at Debevoise & Plimpton, to lead the investigation. 

Ms. Rice said that, as special prosecutor, Mr. Dinallo would have all the powers that she would have if she were leading the probe including the authority to subpoena witnesses, arrest suspects and seek for indictments.

Mr. Dinallo and his legal team will work pro bono. But he will have the ability to hire outside experts, who will be paid by the county.

Although Ms. Rice said she was confident her office could conduct the investigation, doing so could create "an appearance of partiality" that she wanted to avoid.

Ms. Rice pointed out in a statement that the probe could have "a widespread effect on the justice system within which the [district attorney's] office's prosecutors play such a vital role."

Mr. Dinallo declined to comment, referring all calls to the prosecutor's office.

"Mr. Dinallo has been a leading investigative attorney and regulator at the center of some of New York's most innovative and important legal cases, and throughout his career he's been renowned for his legal acumen and his uncompromising integrity," Ms. Rice said.

Mr. Dinallo, who also served as the state insurance superintendent, ran for attorney general last year, coming in fifth to Ms. Rice's second in the Democratic primary. Eric Schneiderman won the primary and the general election.

Mr. Dinallo joined Debevoise & Plimpton as a partner after the election. According to the firm's website, "he represents clients throughout the financial services sector and provides counseling on a broad range of matters, including government and internal investigations, enforcement actions, litigation and compliance matters, and regulatory and strategic legal advice on mergers and acquisitions and other corporate transactions."

Questions about the crime lab were first raised in December, when a national accrediting group, the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors/Laboratory Accreditation Board, put the facility on probation. The organization faulted, among other things, the lab's procedures for marking and storing evidence and record keeping.

The county medical examiner's office took supervision of the lab from the police department, and a spot check of nine cases last week showed faulty analysis in six cases involving ketamine or ecstasy.

Officials initially suspended only drug tests, but Ms. Rice and County Executive Edward Mangano announced the cessation of all its operations on Friday in the wake of revelations that laboratory supervisors had been aware of the problems.

9,000 Cases Under Review

As Mr. Dinallo begins his investigation, some 9,000 cases dating to late 2007 are being checked for errors (NYLJ, Feb. 22).

One attorney looking to set aside a client's previous conviction due to new questions about the crime lab is Brian J. Griffin of Foley Griffin in Garden City. His client, Erin C. Marino of Hicksville, was convicted in August of vehicular assault, a Class C felony (People v. Marino, 00245N-2010).

Ms. Marino, who is out on bail, faces a maximum sentence of seven years for the conviction, according to Mr. Griffin.

In early December, Mr. Griffin was about to file a motion to set aside Ms. Marino's conviction on other grounds under Criminal Procedure Law §330. When news of the crime lab's probation came to light—which included questions about calculating blood alcohol content, which was central to Ms. Marino's case—Mr. Griffin said he rewrote his motion to include grounds about the lab's evidence.

A hearing on Mr. Griffin's motion began last week. County Court Judge George R. Peck is presiding over the case which is scheduled to resume on Friday.

"I'm confident the judge is going to set aside the verdict in Ms. Marino's case and order a new trial. I'm sure it will be the pathway to many other cases whose findings have been compromised by the problems at the lab," he said.

Meanwhile, the Nassau County Bar Association announced yesterday the formation of a task force comprised of criminal defense attorneys and legal service representatives who would examine whether new laws, standards or other measures are needed to address the problems surrounding the crime lab.

The task force members come from the county bar group's Criminal Law and Procedure Committee, Nassau Legal Aid Society and the Nassau County Criminal Courts Bar Association.

This is not the first time Ms. Rice has turned to outside assistance to help in an investigation. This past fall she announced the formation of a panel of experts to review the county's controversial 1988 conviction of Jesse Friedman for numerous counts of child molestation