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