Alleged misconduct by a New Jersey crime lab technician has prompted charges against 1,160 criminal defendants to be marked for dismissal because purported drug evidence in those cases was destroyed, according to a judge supervising cases impacted by the lab’s problems.
Meanwhile, evidence has been re-tested in cases involving another 1,326 defendants that were brought based on testing of alleged drugs carried out by the same technician, and each has confirmed the prior positive test results for controlled dangerous substances, Superior Court Judge Edward Jerejian said in a case management order issued on Wednesday.
Jerejian, who was assigned in 2016 to supervise cases potentially compromised by improper testing procedures by State Police technician Kamalkant Shah, also announced his plan for evaluating such cases.
Under Jerejian’s plan, the first phase addresses defendants for whom the Office of the Public Defender has already filed motions to have drug convictions vacated and cases dismissed.
The first phase of the case management program concerns cases in which a motion for relief has been filed. Since potential irregularities in the state police crime lab came to light in late 2015, 485 motions for post-conviction relief have been filed. Of those, 401 have been resolved, the judiciary said in an statement.
Of the 401 cases, 397 were resolved when the Public Defender’s Office withdrew the motions, based on re-testing of suspected drug evidence that re-tested positive, and the other four were dismissed by Jerejian, according to the state Attorney General’s office.
For remaining motions where evidence is available, Jerejian’s order said, the Attorney General’s Office will have 180 days to re-test the evidence using gas chromatography mass spectrometry testing.
The second part of the plan concerns cases where a motion for relief has been filed but drug evidence has been destroyed. In those cases, the attorney general will determine whether the underlying charges or adjudication should be vacated. Where charges are recommended for dismissal, the attorney general will file a proposed order, and the defendant will be provided a copy of the dismissal order and notice of eligibility for expungement, for which filing fees are to be waived, Jerejian’s order said.
The third phase of the plan concerns cases where no motion for relief has been filed but evidence is available. There, the Attorney General’s Office agrees to re-test the evidence, Jerejian said. To date, 883 such cases have been retested and in each case the retest confirmed the original positive test for drugs, Jerejian said.
Attorney General Gurbir Grewal, in a statement, said he was proud of the manner in which his office collaborated with the judiciary and Office of the Public Defender to respond to the allegations of irregularities at the state crime lab.
“The important steps set forth in Judge Jerejian’s order ensure that justice is served in all cases. We remain committed to ensuring that no conviction is upheld unless we are satisfied that any drug testing conducted was in fact reliable,” Grewal’s statement said.
First Assistant Public Defender Kevin Walker, in a statement, praised the advanced testing procedures and equipment now used by State Police in its crime lab.
“One of the principal benefits of this litigation has been the state’s adoption of a new protocol for the testing of suspected marijuana. Hopefully with its adoption, we will avoid future allegations of laboratory fraud. We commend the Office of Attorney General for heeding the calls for reform, in the face of these allegations, and for so readily changing the testing protocol to comport with best practices,” Walker said in a statement.
The appointment of Jerejian as special master and the re-examination of thousands of old cases were prompted by allegations that Shah failed to properly conduct laboratory analyses of purported drug evidence. Shah, who was a 10-year veteran of the state police lab in Little Falls, New Jersey, was suspended for allegedly recording test results on a specimen of purported marijuana without properly conducting the analysis. Shah has not been been charged criminally and has retired.