A day after the governor ordered the shutdown of a state drug lab, defense lawyers are estimating that thousands of drug convictions may be open to challenge and reversal due to the actions of a single state chemist.
Massachusetts State Police say that the Jamaica Plain lab, which was recently transferred from the Department of Public Health to the Department of Public Safety, was closed after they determined that a chemist failed to follow testing protocols. State police are investigating allegations of deliberate mishandling of evidence by a woman identified in court records as Annie Dookhan, who had worked for the lab for 10 years.
Reporter David Boeri joined WBUR's All Things Considered to discuss the what's at stake.
David Boeri: Without exaggeration, what's at stake here is the integrity of the justice system. You have basic evidence in drug cases that's now coming under question because of that chemist — and for the whole 10 years that she has been working for the lab. Literally, she has been involved in thousands of cases.
Steve Brown: What kind of work was she was doing?
As a chemist in the lab she would receive the evidence that was brought in by police, and then the chemist is expected to log it in to maintain this chain of custody, and then weigh it and analyze it. She has to identify whether it is a controlled substance or not — whether it's an illegal drug. And remember the weight is critical because weight determines the charges much of the time and it even drives the prison or jail sentence upon conviction.
Here's defense attorney Ed Ryan, former president of the Massachusetts Bar Association:
It's a determination of whether it's cocaine or crack cocaine. It's a determination of purity, and it's a determination as to weight. And if you have a chemist who's fudging on any of those issues, then people are going to jail that perhaps shouldn't be.
When was the problem with that chemist discovered?
This is perhaps the most disturbing part of the story — and the scandal by the way is still young. It was in June of last year that problems were discovered in that lab, that was then under the control of the Department of Public Health. Lawyers and the Committee on Public Counsel Services, though, were not notified until February of this year.
Here's Anne Goldbach, who is the scientific expert for the Committee on Public Counsel Services:
Attorneys should have been alerted to it immediately. I don't believe that that chemist should have been involved in any cases from the moment they discovered it until they could figure out whether or not there were further problems. And, instead, we were kept in the dark for six and a half months. Instead, that chemist came to court and testified, we don't know how many times.
This is really what is stunning — that that chemist, Annie Dookhan, was testifying at trial in January when they already knew that the problems went back to June and the attorneys for these different clients weren't notified of irregularities until February of this year.
When some of the attorneys sought hearings to look into the improprieties, the state counter argued that it was only a single batch of improprieties on one day, so they lost their motions — those defence attorneys. Now, six months later, we know the problem was far greater and it is only now coming to full light.
What needs to be done now?
They have to determine if anybody else was involved. We're told that only a single chemist is involved, but they have to go through every case she was involved in and try to figure it out. This is going to be a massive problem.
This program aired on August 31, 2012.