BOSTON — At least one Massachusetts district attorney expects to decide next week whether to dismiss a wider range of cases where drug evidence was tested at the now-closed Hinton lab in Jamaica Plain.
Middlesex District Attorney Gerald Leone says preliminary information from his team assessing drug lab cases shows that prosecutors may have to dismiss more cases, beyond those that relied on testing from former chemist Annie Dookhan.
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“As we’ve been provided more information about what happened at the lab, we’ve moved away from this being one rogue chemist to a lab that had insufficient practices, policies and protocols to an extent that leads us to believe there are going to be more cases compromised than just the ones signed off on by Annie Dookhan,” he said.
Dookhan has been charged with manipulating drug tests at the lab, potentially compromising 34,000 criminal cases where she was the chemist involved in the testing. Amid several investigations into Dookhan’s tenure at the lab from 2003 to 2012, Leone says all of the lab’s operations are now in question and the state’s district attorneys will meet next week to decide how to proceed.
“As we identify cases at the Hinton lab and we realize that there were insufficiencies and inadequacies in practices, protocols and policies there, it may be that a wide swath — if not all — of the cases done by the Jamaica Plain lab between 2003 and 2012 may not be prosecuted,” Leone said.
Leone estimates that 9,000 cases in Middlesex County relied on evidence tested at the Hinton lab. He says about 250 cases have been heard in special court sessions established to review drug lab cases, with the cases of those incarcerated being reviewed first. So far, 15 people have been released.
“People who are being released are not being released because they’re innocent,” Leone said. “Some of them may be, but in the vast majority of cases we’ve looked at, the defendants did what’s alleged. We just can’t prove it beyond a reasonable doubt or to go forward wouldn’t be fair and just under the circumstances. They may be released but it has little to do with guilt or innocence, it has to do with failure of government, particularly the Department of Public Health.”
The drug lab scandal came to light when State Police took over the Hinton lab from the Department of Public Health last summer. Dookhan resigned in March after an internal investigation showed alleged misconduct. She told investigators in August that she just wanted to get the work done and never meant to hurt anyone.
“I screwed up big-time,” Dookhan is quoted as telling the investigators. “I messed up bad, it’s my fault. I don’t want the lab to get in trouble.”
The lab scandal continues to ripple on several fronts. In September, the Hinton lab’s director was fired and Dookhan’s immediate supervisor and DPH Commissioner Jon Auerbach resigned. In October, a Norfolk County assistant district attorney resigned after it was revealed that he and Dookhan often made personal calls and texted and emailed each other, in violation of lab protocols. Gov. Deval Patrick has appointed attorney David Meier to review the cases affected and the state attorney general and inspector general are investigating.
Most legal observers expect the fallout from the scandal to continue for years and cost the state tens of millions of dollars. Lawmakers are still considering an initial $30 million request from prosecutors, police and social service agencies to start rectifying what’s now known to be a major breach in Massachusetts criminal justice system.