Lawyers Say Drug Lab Scandal Could Widen

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As the court cases proceed against former state chemist Annie Dookhan, the Massachusetts legal community continues to grapple with the fallout from the drug lab scandal.

As Dookhan appeared in two courts Thursday to face charges of manipulating drug evidence, district attorneys and defense attorneys continued to pour through tens of thousands of criminal cases potentially compromised by Dookhan. Both sides are setting up special areas to review years of paperwork and both say the scope of the scandal is likely to grow.

Ex-state chemist Annie Dookhan at her arraignment Wednesday. (Joe Spurr/WBUR)
Ex-state chemist Annie Dookhan at her arraignment Wednesday. (Joe Spurr/WBUR)

"Abandon hope, all ye who enter here."

That Dante quote is prominently posted on a wall in what's known as the "war room" in the offices of Essex County District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett. He's assigned six attorneys to work in the room, reviewing cases potentially affected by the drug lab scandal.

"So I have people with very heavy caseloads now picking these cases up and as you can imagine it's very time consuming going through each file on an individual basis, which has to be done," Blodgett said.

So far, Blodgett's office has identified about 5,400 cases where drugs were tested by Dookhan at the now-closed state lab in Jamaica Plain. So far, only 10 people in his county have been released.

"We're still at the fingertip stage of these because the cases being reviewed are cases which Annie Dookhan had been involved and these are just for people who are currently incarcerated," Blodgett said. "That's not including other cases in which people have been charged, they're out on bail. We're not even close to being in the real, real meat of this."

The Massachusetts District Attorneys Association says 10 of the state's 11 district attorneys have cases where Dookhan was involved in the testing. The one district attorney not immediately affected, Northwestern District Attorney David Sullivan, has other problems. His office has asked for an audit of the Amherst drug lab after a chemist there was charged with evidence tampering. That chemist, Sonja Farak, of Northampton, at one time worked with Dookhan at the lab in Jamaica Plain. Plymouth County District Attorney Tim Cruz says that raises more questions.

"I think all of us [district attorneys] have had people calling saying, 'Is this case, Commonwealth vs. John Doe, was that a Dookhan case?' " Cruz said. "And now in this instance of this new chemist, I'm sure we're going to have to restart because we weren't looking for another chemist at that point."

Cruz says at this point his office has identified more than 300 Dookhan-related cases and an unknown number of defendants have been released. His team continues to comb through court documents looking for potential cases affected.

"My office has spent about 4,200 man hours on this." Cruz says it's likely this process will take years and cases will change. "The district attorneys are the keepers of the records and we have to make sure justice is served for everybody involved."

Defense attorneys also have their own "war rooms" set up to look for Dookhan-related cases. In the basement of his law offices in Andover, criminal defense attorney John Valerio has a rolling file cabinet and dozens of boxes containing paper files from thousands of cases.

So far he's found at least a dozen people charged with drug crimes based on evidence that Dookhan tested. In one federal court case, his client was deported. In another, Dookhan was not listed as the testing chemist on the official drug certification, but Valerio says in documents supporting the certification, she is listed as the testing chemist. So Valerio wonders whether Dookhan was involved in even more than 34,000 potentially compromised cases already identified.

"I can only conclude that Ms. Dookhan, quite possible as she's admitted in other instances, may have forged the signatures of other chemists or other chemists may have signed this sheet unwittingly," Valerio said. "We still have more work to do in terms of discovery on this particular case."

Valerio also questions whether the state has devised a uniform way to address these cases. He says cases are handled differently depending on which court he's in and there are some courts where the proceedings are just stalled.

"It all depends on the county," Valerio said.

But the district attorneys bristle at that and say many of these cases are complicated, often involving charges beyond the drugs allegedly involved. Essex County DA Blodgett says prosecutors are bearing the brunt of having to correct a mistake they didn't make.

"This was a problem that is the administration's problem. It was caused by lack of oversight and nobody in criminal justice did anything wrong here," Blodgett said. "This was a chemist that was hired by the executive branch. It wasn't anything that had to do with people on my side of the ledger, frankly."

Blodgett is among the district attorneys asking why state lawmakers have not yet acted on a $30 million budget request to deal with the scandal. That request includes $12 million for district attorneys. The House speaker and the chair of the House Ways and Means Committee did not return requests for comment on the status of that budget request.

As for Annie Dookhan, she entered not guilty pleas Thursday on obstruction of justice charges in Bristol and Plymouth counties and remains free on $10,000 bail. Her case could change as the state attorney general and inspector general continue to investigate.

This program aired on January 31, 2013.

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Deborah Becker Host/Reporter
Deborah Becker is a senior correspondent and host at WBUR. Her reporting focuses on mental health, criminal justice and education.



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