‘Unfathomable’ Massachusetts lab crisis may have tainted 40,000 cases

Howard Manly | 8/28/2013, 10:39 a.m.

Calling the state lab crisis “unfathomable” and resulting from an “unconscionable level of gross negligence,” the Massachusetts Bar Association Chief Legal Counsel Martin W. Healy nevertheless applauded the work of Gov. Patrick’s Administration in revealing that 40,323 defendants’ cases could have been tainted by the work of accused chemist Annie Dookhan.

The number of potentially tainted cases was revealed last week after independent attorney David Meier released the results of an 11-month page-by-page investigation of 3.5 million pages of electronic and paper documents at the now-closed state lab. Meier’s investigation saw the number of potential cases increase by 3,000 from previous estimates.

Of the 40,323 cases identified by Meier’s team, about 10,000 were deemed priority cases because the suspects were incarcerated and awaiting trial in Superior Court or had been convicted based on samples tested by Dookhan, according to the report. Meier said the vast majority of the remaining 30,000 individuals were non-violent or first-time drug offenders.

“The overwhelming tide of individuals affected by Dookhan’s actions requires a systematic and speedy resolution to ensure immediate redress for individuals wrongfully convicted or affected by tainted evidence,” said Healy. “The crisis will continue to negatively impact the state’s budget and reverberate throughout the commonwealth’s judicial system for years to come.”

A state spokesman said last week that least 337 state prison inmates have been let out of custody as a result of the lab scandal, and the Massachusetts District Attorneys Association said at least 1,115 cases were dismissed or not prosecuted because of Dookhan’s involvement or due to problems with producing documents because of the lab closure.

The Committee for Public Counsel Services, the state’s public defender agency, believes all 190,000 cases sent through the Department of Public Health lab dating back to the early 1990s are now suspect and should be dismissed.

“The whole thing is disturbing,’’ Anthony Benedetti, chief counsel for the committee, said of published reports of Meier’s findings and the drug lab scandal. “I think every one of the 40,000 cases she touched should be thrown out. Whether it was possession or distribution [of illegal drugs], the conviction is tainted because of the conduct of Annie Dookhan.’’

Matthew Segal, legal director of the ACLU Massachusetts, said the state’s criminal justice system must do more to help those whose civil rights may have been violated by Dookhan’s alleged mishandling of evidence and the failure of her superiors to stop it.

“David Meier’s announcement [last week] confirms that we are no closer to solving this problem,’’ said Segal. “There are 40,000 people whose convictions have been potentially tainted and the vast majority of them haven’t had a day in court. Merely identifying them isn’t justice.’’

Dookhan, who admitted to police she “messed up bad” when news of her alleged tampering broke, faces 27 counts across six counties, including perjury and obstruction of justice, and is slated for a Jan. 6 trial. Dookhan, 35, of Franklin, has pleaded not guilty to her alleged wrongdoing. Police arrested Dookhan last September, and a grand jury issued an indictment in December.

In addition to unraveling hundreds of drug convictions, the scandal has also cost the state millions of dollars used to pay individual prosecutors’ offices, multiple state agencies and judiciary searching for ways to ensure no one was wrongly convicted.

For fiscal year 2013, lawmakers set aside $30 million for Dookhan-related costs, and the administration set up a procedure that required other government agencies to apply for funding to the state Administration and Finance Agency.

State officials said last week that they’ve approved $10.4 million in funds to handle the scandal’s fallout with prosecutors, defense attorneys, the courts and other agencies. Thus far, $7.6 million has been spent. Meier’s law firm of Todd & Weld was separately paid $12,500 per month during the review, the governor’s office said.

Gov. Deval Patrick thanked Meier for his work to try to help resolve the legal morass.

“Now, with this detailed information, the many participants in the criminal justice system can do the work of getting each individual case right,” Patrick said in a statement last week.