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Massachusetts is reeling from a massive scandal in its state crime lab. Details are still emerging about what officials call a "rogue chemist" who may have mishandled evidence in as many as 40,000 cases over 10 years.
It could mean the unraveling of countless convictions.
Even lawyers prone to hyperbole may not be overstating it when they call the scandal a catastrophic failure and unmitigated disaster.
"Any person who's been convicted of a drug crime in the last several years whose drugs were tested at the lab was very potentially a victim of a very substantial miscarriage of justice," says defense attorney John Martin.
He represents the man believed to be the first convict sprung because of the scandal. David Danielli walked out of prison Thursday after a judge agreed his guilty plea was undermined by questions about the evidence. Those same questions may also undermine efforts to retry him.
Even Martin concedes countless guilty people will probably go free.
"Talented defense attorneys will be able to strongly suggest that any results from that lab are tainted, and people who deserve to be incarcerated for a very long time are going to walk — and that's the reality of it," Martin says.
Even prosecutors supported the defendant's release on Thursday, saying the Constitution demands it. And it's not the end of the fallout.
District Attorney Joe Early, head of the Massachusetts District Attorneys Association, says prosecutors will move on some cases even before defense attorneys ask.
"The DAs are used to putting people in jail. They're not used to letting them out because of technicalities or mistesting. In that regard, a lot of people have some tough decisions to make," Early says.
Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley is investigating the chemist, Annie Dookhan, who's accused of tampering with samples to make them weigh more, or even to test positive. She and three others have already lost their jobs, including Department of Public Health Commissioner John Auerbach, who says supervisors should have picked up on red flags.
Dookhan was caught a year ago after she failed to sign out evidence and signed out evidence using aliases. She was handling three times the normal caseload.
"That the actions of a single person could cause so much damage, and the possibility that justice was not served — I'm furious at that," Auerbach says.
Defense attorneys like Max Stern are already buzzing about civil suits.
"There's many people who for years have not been able to get jobs, not [been] be able to get driver's licenses, not [been] able to live in particular housing," he says. "There are enormous consequences nowadays to drug convictions."
It's still unclear what the chemist's motive may have been, but if some innocent defendants were wrongly convicted, former prosecutor Wendy Murphy says people should be equally concerned about bad guys who may have gotten off.
"There is no legal remedy. Prosecutors cannot go back in front of a judge and say, 'I want this wrongfully acquitted man to be brought back up on charges,' because double jeopardy would bar that remedy, and that's a problem for the public," Murphy says.
Nancy Gertner, a former federal judge and now a Harvard law professor, agrees that the crime lab scandal could "turn the system on its head." She says courts might dismiss cases not only because of tainting, but also just to punish and deter misconduct.
"There have been times when government misconduct was so outrageous, the only response is to dismiss charges. It doesn't happen often, and it takes extreme situations, but this is a level of negligence which is really stunning," Gertner says.
The crime lab in question used to be run by the Department of Public Health but is now under the state police, as in most other states. But Northeastern University law professor Daniel Medwed says that can be problematic.
"There are often implicit pressures [on crime lab technicians] to help out prosecutors — to testify in cases in a way that supports their perceived colleagues in law enforcement," Medwed says.
A legislative panel is looking into possible reforms. Prosecutors say the obvious answer is better oversight.
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