BOSTON — The chemist suspected of violating protocols while testing evidence in drug cases was involved with some 50,000 drug samples, it was revealed Wednesday, leaving a staggering number of drug cases and convictions possibly open to challenge and reversal.
Six months after chemist Annie Dookhan was suspended from the state crime lab in Jamaica Plain because of irregularities, she was still testifying as an expert witness for the government. In January, she took the stand against a defendant charged with trafficking cocaine. The man’s attorney, James Powderly, didn’t have a clue she herself was a suspect.
“All her years of experience and her school and education, all that comes in,” Powderly said, explaining that Dookhan testified that “the substance that was seized was in fact cocaine and the weight of it was in excess of 200 grams.”
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Dookhan’s testimony was crucial. If she had recorded the cocaine — if it was cocaine — as weighing under 100 grams, he would have been sentenced to five years. If she had recorded it as weighing more than 100 grams but less than 200, he would have been sentenced to 10 years.* Instead, he was automatically sentenced to 15 years upon his conviction under mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines.
“When an expert comes in from the state lab, they have that cloak of credibility with them,” Powderly said. “They are presumed to have that credibility and to be telling everything that’s accurate and truthful.”
And yet the Department of Public Heath and the crime lab it ran never notified authorities until February of this year that there was any problem or that their expert witness had been suspended and was being investigated.
Powderly found out a month or two after the trial. He says he would’ve done things differently if he had known she had been suspended.
“That’s something certainly I would have pursued aggressively in my case,” he said. “I would have an obligation to do so on behalf of my client.”
Powderly and the attorney who’s now handling the client’s appeal have still not been contacted by the Bristol County district attorney, the Department of Public Health or State Police, who have taken over the lab and the mess that was there.
“Approximately how many times have you ventured to identify whether an object or an item is a narcotic or not?” a prosecutor asked Dookhan at another trial where she testified in December 2009.
Her answer: “Tens of thousands.”
She wasn’t lying. Spreadsheets from State Police sent to the Committee for Public Counsel Services on Tuesday hint at a nightmare. They show that Dookhan was responsible for over 50,000 samples during her time at the lab.
Anne Goldbach, the scientific expert for the Committee on Public Counsel Services, says they still don’t know how many individual cases those samples will affect.
“We don’t have docket numbers, we don’t have police report numbers,” Goldbach said. “So we don’t have an easy way to connect the cases that are connected to these drugs.”
One question among many involving Annie Dookhan, who quit her job at the state lab in March: Is everything she ever touched now tainted?
Clarification: This clarification on cocaine grams and sentencing guidelines was added to the Web version of this story.