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About the drug lab disaster: A district attorney’s perspective

The release last week of an armed career criminal from his prison sentence on gun, ammunition, and drug convictions shows just how serious the ongoing crisis at a Department of Public Health drug-testing facility is and how that crisis will affect public safety in the weeks, months, and even years to come.

David Huffman is just one of the violent offenders who stand to benefit from the alleged malfeasance of a chemist accused of intentionally mishandling evidence a drug-testing facility formerly run by the Department of Public Health. Huffman and others like him – high-level narcotics dealers, violent offenders and career criminals – could be released into communities as a result of this chemist’s actions, which affect more than 20,000 drug samples at issue in Suffolk County cases.

Immediately upon learning of the crisis at the DPH lab, my office began working to identify those cases, prioritizing those in which the defendant is either held on bail or serving time on a conviction. In many cases, we’ve asked the court to release the defendants while we assess the evidence – in two cases, even when the defendant was prepared to plead guilty. In other cases, such as Huffman’s, prosecutors have fought to keep those defendants behind bars when they face charges unrelated to the drug lab disaster.

Even before his arrest on charges of drug trafficking and firearms possession, Huffman had a long record with convictions for witness intimidation, assault and battery with a dangerous weapon, and numerous other offenses, many of them violent, dating back more than 40 years. In August, he admitted to possessing a loaded .357 revolver – his second illegal firearm – along with trafficking-weight quantities of heroin and cocaine. He was sentenced to concurrent terms of seven to 10 years in state prison.

Despite his own admissions of guilt, however, Huffman recently asked a Suffolk County judge to free him from prison in light of the alleged actions of the chemist who handled the drug evidence in his case. Prosecutors assented to a stay of his sentence on the drug charges because that evidence potentially compromised, but we argued against any such action on the gun and ammunition: that evidence was completely unaffected by the drug lab crisis. Over our objections, the judge stayed the execution of this violent offender’s sentences, setting a bail that may allow him to walk out of prison and back to his home turf while investigators sort out the mess that has thrown his and so many other serious cases into jeopardy.

With an average of about 40,000 criminal cases per year in Suffolk County, the prosecutions affected by the DPH lab disaster amount to half our annual caseload in one fell swoop. There is no quick, easy, or one-size-fits-all solution, and we’ll need the resources to review each affected case on its own merits. But our overarching goal will always be to protect the public safety while guaranteeing every defendant’s constitutional rights.

Daniel F. Conley is the Suffolk County District Attorney.