Over 7,800 Prosecutions Questioned After NJ Lab Tech Caught Faking Drug Test Results

from the so-fast-the-tests-can't-even-keep-up-with-him dept

Hey, it’s only someone’s freedom at stake. Why try harder? (via Fusion.net)

A lab technician for the State Police allegedly faked results in a drug case, and has drawn into question 7,827 criminal cases on which he worked, according to state officials.

Kamalkant Shah worked as a laboratory technician for the State Police laboratory in Little Falls and was found to have “dry labbed” suspected marijuana, according to a Feb. 29 memo to Public Defender Joseph Krakora from Deputy Public Defender Judy Fallon. Shah’s essentially accused of making up data.

“Basically, he was observed writing ‘test results’ for suspected marijuana that was never tested,” Fallon said in the memo.

If Shah wasn’t concerned about putting a possibly innocent person behind bars, it’s unlikely his yearly salary of $101,039 would have been much of a motivating factor for better work either. It could be that this was an isolated incident — the one time Shah cut corners to increase throughput. (Which, truth be told, is kind of how our entire criminal justice system operates: throughput is preferable to diligent effort.)

But odds are that if Shah got caught, it’s something that happened eventually, rather than immediately. Bad habits are easy to develop and tend to spiral out of control until the inevitable happens. There’s no way to tell if this was a one-off. Conversely, there’s no way to positively state this didn’t happen all the time. Hence the thousands of criminal cases now being viewed as questionable.

Now comes the hard part of setting things right — which is actually an impossibility, as the public defender’s memo points out.

Mr. Shah was employed with the lab from 2005 to 2015; obviously all his “results” have been called into question. In Passaic County alone, the universe of cases possibly implicated in this conduct is 2,100. The Prosecutor’s Office is still in the process of identifying them. Their plan is to submit for retesting specimens from open cases. The larger, and unanswered, question is how this impacts already resolved cases, especially those where the specimens may have been destroyed.

Closed cases with no surviving evidence are still questionable, but there’s no way to get answers. No one’s going to start reversing convictions en masse just because the results might have been faked. The hundreds or thousands of cases where the tested samples may still be available aren’t suddenly going to become a priority for the State Police either. It’s more than just a question of will. It’s also a question of resources. And when resources are scarce, possibly falsely imprisoned citizens will remain imprisoned.

In a case we discussed last year, a drug lab chemist was discovered to have been faking test results for years, resulting in nearly 40,000 criminal prosecutions being called into question. An examination by David Colarusso, a public defender turned data scientist, pointed to several issues that would put thousands of manhours between the suspect test results and any exonerations. It’s not just that results were deliberately faked, but that the paperwork associated with them could have any number of flaws.

This gave us a rough list of clients on The List, and we used these names to create a list of their co-defendants. We then checked The List for the co-defendant names. Unfortunately, a lot of these were missing. If we assumed the same rate of missing names across all cases, it seemed The List was missing somewhere between 0 and 9,600 names. Wait, what? That’s right, thousands of potentially missing names. The uncertainty came from the fact that we had to match names. The List did not come with dates of birth, addresses, or Social Security Numbers—just names. So occasionally, we could not find a name we were looking for because the Commonwealth and CPCS disagreed on the spelling of a name or someone made a transcription error.

This particular effort has its own roadblocks. For one, the reopening of cases has been tossed to the prosecutor’s office. While this is definitely the department that should handle it — what with the misconduct occurring under their supervision and the office being better staffed and funded than their defense counterparts — there’s very little in it to motivate prosecutors to move quickly. No one likes having to erase wins from the board.

On top of that, this will require actual effort — and lots of it.

Kevin Walker, an assistant public defender, issued a statement on behalf of the Public Defender’s Office Wednesday saying the office does not have “a practical mechanism for identifying all the cases involving” Shah.

“The prosecuting attorneys are going to have to do that, by reviewing the records from the Little Falls lab and cross-referencing them with their files,” he said. “We assume the prosecutors will do that promptly. Pending that review, we are going to keep all our options on the table, including filing motions to vacate convictions in appropriate cases.”

The public defenders are playing their cards right. Filing motions to vacate convictions will motivate prosecutors who want to keep wins on the board to track down the tests and verify their accuracy. But that still does nothing for those whose supposedly culpatory test results have already been destroyed. And there will be many who simply fall through the cracks thanks to clerical errors, incomplete documentation or just because tangling with bureaucratic filing systems tends to wear people down quickly.

Prosecutors place a lot of faith in forensic lab results. So does almost every law enforcement agency, including the FBI. But over the years, investigations have found some forensic testing to be mostly junk science. In others, the science holds up but the test results are only as solid as the people performing them. Even the best scientists are susceptible to confirmation bias and the most knowledgeable expert witnesses can unconsciously act on a desire to please, rather than offer unbiased testimony.

Some mistakes are human error. Some are more malicious. When human lives and freedom are at stake, standards should never be allowed to slip. This means increasing the level of personal accountability — by hiring the right people and by deterring future misconduct with harsh penalties for those who play fast and loose with criminal evidence. The latter hasn’t happened here, which does not bode well for future criminal defendants.

Shah has not been charged with any crime, and is believed to have retired.

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Comments on “Over 7,800 Prosecutions Questioned After NJ Lab Tech Caught Faking Drug Test Results”

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33 Comments
That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Because to protect the image of the system outweighs the rights of the convicted.
So what if they were convicted on contrived evidence.
So what if the details were not released.
So what if anyone finally managed to get exonerated, we’ve limited their recourse for compensation.
So what if the system is rigged.

So few people will care because it hasn’t happened to them. It has happened to a population they’ve been taught to fear and expect the worst of. This only happens to bad people who deserve it, not good people like me. We got the bad people locked away, so what if the lab results were fake they probably did it anyways.

Allowing the liar to retire, probably with all benefits intact & allowed to move elsewhere, shows how little the system cares about the law. They cheated the law, they violated their oaths, and when confronted with it they drag their feet and leave thousands of people screwed to protect their win rating.

“Regular” people need to wake up to the very simple truth that the system routinely does screw innocent people, and that the system does nothing to punish those who did it or compensate people who had their lives stolen. That they are paying the price for faked worked, incompetent workers, keeping innocent people in prison, and paying a pittance in oh sorry we fucked you money, and keep these cheating cogs working.

Yes Skippy it hasn’t happened to you, but perhaps consider what happens when the system targets you incorrectly and magically the evidence says you did it. Imagine the rest of society discounting what you say and not giving a shit because you had to have done something wrong and need to be punished.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Sadly there is a MASSIVE need for new prisoners.
The entire paint industry in the US and EU is run by prisoners, who if they are in for a few years but show skill/ability at their slave labor then trumped up charges will pretty much keep them there for DECADES.

And yes, it IS slave labor. The prisoners are paid somewhere around $1 per hour. this $1 is then removed for basic sanitary needs such as soap/hot water, toothpaste etc.
If they refuse to work they are locked in solitary confinement for MONTHS at a time until they break.

Land of the free, home of the brave? Bullshit until there’s an active revolution.

Anonymous Coward says:

Getting a conviction takes priority because it makes the system look “tough on crime” which incidentally makes a great bullet point in politics.

Nevermind that, for most people, “crime” is generally a pretty narrow term mostly encompassing murder, rape and robbery and maybe aggravated, massive scale tort.

Meanwhile “crime” has a very different meaning in the legal system where it’s used for everything from passing out drunk in a park to smoking weed to murder.

Maybe there should be a new tiered system for what is considered a crime, this time with punishment actually somewhat matching the crime.

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Re: Re:

There is also the desire by the legal system to only pursue cases they can “win”. Winning is sometimes just piling up charges until the plea bargain looks acceptable. There are cases where winning wasn’t a slam dunk, and they declined to charge. The CSI effect means that the evidence is not questioned and even if the defense can afford to run independent testing it is a battle of the experts, and the inherent belief that experts for the defense were paid enough to give the answer most beneficial to the defendant. No one ever considers that can go both ways, that getting a conviction at any cost sometimes leads to shortcuts & outright cheating. When it is exposed it is always shown as just 1 or 2 bad apples & corrective measures have been put into place… the problem is no one considers how many people they screwed over their career.

The system isn’t fair, isn’t accountable, and pretending it does makes us worse off as a society. Real criminals get away with crime because they can afford to fight, and sometimes innocents get railroaded because a sticky gold star for winning is more important that truth and justice.

Quiet Lurcker says:

Some Fixes

1. Prosecutor MUST provide evidence samples for concurrent testing on a blind basis at any lab chosen by defense. Differences in result are resolved in favor of the defense.

2. After a predetermined number of prosecution results different from defense result, that lab is examined with a fine-toothed comb and microscope.

3. If the crime lab is proven to have faked results and there are any closed cases, the state must pay each affected defendant $5000.00 and release them immediately. No ‘if’s, no ‘and’s, no ‘but’s. Just do it.

4. Lab personnel caught faking results are terminated immediately and any any fees incurred under point 3 above come out of their retirement/severance/future incomes.

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Re: Some Fixes

The small problem with point 1 is that the state often is unwilling to offer resources to the defense.
IIRC in New Orleans there are people waiting for their trial dates who have been sitting for years, because they refuse to pay for the defense.
The system is unbalanced from the word go, when you have public defenders managing case loads well beyond what they can possibly reasonable handle up against a well funded prosecution team who has all of the bells and whistles at their disposal and carry a tenth of a caseload why is anyone shocked that plea deals are pushed even if they aren’t in the best interest of defendants.

The cash made available should be equal on both sides ending the unfair advantages the state gets.

As to #4 I think they need to be tried by the system. They should face the very harsh justice everyone else faces. We need to start holding them to at least the minimum the law demands rather than protecting the image of the system at the expense of citizens.

Anonymous Coward says:

Not enough information to draw any conclusion.

What constitutes a “test” in procedural terms doesn’t necessarily prevent the possibility of professional certainty. Very few things look or smell like bud. The closest thing I can think of is hops. So either we are talking about a dime bag of shake, or there is a chance that this was a procedural thing and not professional negligence.

“Pencil whipping”, happens in many professions where people’s lives are put at risk. It tends to result from a pressure differential between executives and labor. So yeah, the guy screwed up. And yeah, they probably should have had more guys doing that job. Yes there are ways to fix this, but not without tipping somebodies rice bowl.

Almost Anonymous (profile) says:

Re: New saying

Tell me about it. Every single person convicted where this “evidence” was of primary value should have their convictions overturned. They should also be able to pursue this ass for damages.

No, I don’t care that it may have been “only this once”. This is a situation where zero tolerance really does make sense.

That One Guy (profile) says:

A matter of priorities

Shah has not been charged with any crime, and is believed to have retired.

Had they faked evidence in favor of the defense, rather than the prosecution, you can be sure the full weight of the legal system would have been brought to bear on them.

How dare they cheat the prosecution of a conviction, don’t they know that prosecutors need those to live?! Since they faked evidence in favor of the prosecution however it’s seen as no big deal, because what’s a few dozen/hundred/thousand potential wrongful convictions after all, the convictions still stand, and that’s all that matters.

Vadym Zakrevskyy says:

What happened to "...Beyond reasonable doubt"?

So, every one of the “questionable” convictions is no longer valid because the convicts are no longer guilty beyond reasonable doubt, right? All convictions would probably be appealed and one by one overturned. Also, if the defense is really good, damages awarded.

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

We know what should happen to cases already settled based on faked evidence.

They should all be pardoned to the last.

It’s a standard fruit-of-the-poisoned-tree situation, and the penalty for any situation where the state fucks up should be immediate acquittal.

Cops lie: acquittal. Planted evidence: acquittal. Violating privacy without a specifically targeted warrant: acquittal.

Without these protections, all these forms of corruption have become the norm, and we have more inmates who are innocent, or whose guilt is doubtful, than we have guilty.

If we want to keep dangerous people behind bars, we need to sustain a degree of professionalism sufficient to legitimately determine they deserve it beyond reasonable doubt.

Of course, that’s not the way the justice system works, so we can cut to the chase and assume all of our prisoners are innocent / merely political prisoners.

Anonymous Coward says:

So many of these have surfaced of testors faking the results, one has to assume that there is pressure on them to produce results that justify the drug war. Which means that new hires won’t cure the problem until you address the management above them applying the pressure.

What has been captured with this article as well as many more, not to mention the news, is that the justice system is rigged.

In the news, some poor guy didn’t return a video tape rental. 14 years later he is arrested for it during a traffic stop.

http://abcnews.go.com/US/nc-man-arrested-returning-rental-vhs-tape-14/story?id=37897366

Yet we bankers who crashed the economy and have had to face no jail time at all. The corporation pays a fine where it doesn’t have to admit guilt and everyone walks free.

What’s wrong with this picture when it comes to justice?

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Re: We've already determined the problem.

If you’re an official or an officer, you’re above the law.

If you aren’t but you have money, then the law applies to you, provided they don’t seize the money you’d use to hire a legal defense.

And if you don’t have money, or they can seize it, you’re beneath the law.

That’s the legal system in the United States, as it stands.

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