By Carey Wedler
A lab technician for the New Jersey State Police’s Office of Forensic Science has ‘retired’ early after being caught falsely identifying a substance as marijuana without conducting the proper tests. On Monday, Deputy Public Defender Judy Fallon issued a memo to Public Defender Joseph Krakora explaining Kamalkant Shah’s falsified report:
Laboratory Technician II Kamalkant Shah of the New Jersey State Police Laboratory (in Little Falls) has been found to have ‘dry labbed’ suspected CDS specimens. Basically, he was observed writing ‘test results’ for suspected marijuana that was never tested.
According to NJ Advance Media, “Ellie Honig, director of the Division of Criminal Justice of the Attorney general’s office, said in [a] Feb. 22 letter to county prosecutor’s offices that Shah ‘failed to appropriately conduct laboratory analyses in a drug case.’”
The letter, released from the Attorney General to the news outlet on Wednesday, disclosed that “Mr. Shah was observed in one case spending insufficient time analyzing a substance to determine if it was marijuana and recording an anticipated result without properly conducting the analysis.”
“The letter advised prosecutors to disclose this information to defense counsel,” NJ Advance Media reported.
The former technician’s indiscretion in that singular marijuana case has now called into question thousands of drug cases he conducted tests for, as the one in question was only the first observed instance of his dishonesty.
As Fallon noted, “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,” she said.
Shah’s fraudulent testing, overall, may have affected 7,827 drug cases on which he worked. Fallon also indicated the Little Falls crime lab provides testing for other law enforcement agencies across the state, not just the State Police.
Fallon wrote that the Prosecutor’s Office for Passaic County has not yet formulated a strategy to deal with the fallout of the falsified reports. She indicated the difficulty of identifying all the potential cases whose outcomes were influenced by the inaccurate, or downright absence, of testing:
The larger, and unanswered, question is how this impacts already resolved cases, especially those where the specimens may have been destroyed.
Assistant Public Defender Kevin Walker issued a statement saying there is not currently “a practical mechanism for identifying all the cases involving” Shah. According to Peter Aseltine, spokesman for the Attorney General, State Police are reportedly working with prosecutors to comb over cases that may be affected by Shah’s false reports.
“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.”
Aseltine, like other officials, highlighted that only one case was observed to be fraudulent, but that “in an abundance of caution, we have identified every case that Shah worked on since he began working in the North Regional Lab Drug Unit in 2005, and we have notified the county prosecutors, advising them to alert defense attorneys in those cases.”
NJ Advance Media reported that “several attorneys who deal with criminal matters said Wednesday that it wouldn’t likely affect the large number of defendants who pleaded guilty to drug possession.” This assessment apparently does not consider the deep flaws of plea bargains in the American justice system, which make up 90% of court outcomes in the United States, and often result from defendants’ fears they cannot fight the power of the courts — leading even the innocent to take plea bargains. The Drug War, specifically, has led to astronomically high rates of plea deals and prison time, all for individuals who have not committed violence against others.
In spite of the great burden his actions have placed on individuals and the justice system, at large, Shah has not been charged with any crimes. Aseltine said Shah was suspended without pay on January 12, and is “believed to have retired.” Shah enjoyed a salary of over $100,000 per year for the ten years he worked for the State Police.
Unfortunately, his is not an isolated incident. Inaccurate and falsified reporting has plagued the justice system and its related appendages for decades. For example, as the Washington Post reported last year:
The Justice Department and FBI have formally acknowledged that nearly every examiner in an elite FBI forensic unit gave flawed testimony in almost all trials in which they offered evidence against criminal defendants over more than a two-decade period before 2000.
Senator Richard Blumenthal, a former prosecutor, commented on the FBI’s scandal last year, but his sentiments — barring his allusion to executions, which are rare for drug cases — could be easily applied to the current debacle in New Jersey:
These findings are appalling and chilling in their indictment of our criminal justice system, not only for potentially innocent defendants who have been wrongly imprisoned, and even executed, but for prosecutors who have relied on fabricated and false evidence despite their intentions to faithfully enforce the law.
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