DA Rollins Raises Questions About State Drug Lab Chemist Who Worked With Dookhan In Boston04:33

Passersby approach the William A. Hinton State Laboratory Institute, which houses the Massachusetts state drug lab in Boston in 2012. (Steven Senne/AP)
Passersby approach the William A. Hinton State Laboratory Institute, which houses the Massachusetts state drug lab in Boston in 2012. (Steven Senne/AP)

Another Massachusetts prosecutor is raising questions about the scope of the state's investigation into the drug lab scandal involving disgraced chemist Annie Dookhan.

This week, Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins became the state's second district attorney to challenge whether the investigation six years ago by the Office of the Inspector General dug far enough into what occurred at the Hinton drug lab in Boston. Dookhan pleaded guilty in 2013 to tampering with drug evidence there, and became one of the central characters in an embarrassing state criminal justice system saga that continues to play out in hearings today.

In a court filing related to a case before the office, DA Rollins questioned why the OIG's probe did not review the work of Dookhan's Hinton colleague, Della Saunders. Rollins said her office was conducting a review of Saunders' work as part of the office's case, and that it was also looking at the state's investigation of the Hinton Lab.

"In addition to providing discovery, the Commonwealth will frankly assess whether a targeted investigation into Hinton Lab staff conduct was completed," the filing stated.

The OIG's 15-month-long investigation was conducted after Dookhan's guilty plea and trial revealed she had tampered with evidence and even faked testing drug samples in her care. The OIG found Dookhan was the "sole bad actor" at the Hinton Lab. Tens of thousands of criminal cases were dismissed due to her misconduct.


Rollins' court filing notes that Inspector General Glenn Cunha cited Dookhan's high volume of testing as a "red flag" and asked why he did not therefore also look into Saunders.

"Given Saunders' prolific production numbers, coupled with the OIG’s concerns regarding similar production amongst other chemists, both of which mirrored Dookhan’s production numbers, the Commonwealth is reviewing the OIG materials to confirm that the investigation appropriately examined the conduct of Saunders and that Dookhan was indeed the Lab’s sole bad actor," the filing reads.

The case that sparked Rollins' review involves Justino Escobar, a man challenging his 2009 conviction on cocaine trafficking charges in which Saunders tested the evidence involved. Escobar's challenge said the state never investigated Saunders during its review of misconduct at the Hinton lab.

"The fact that Saunders was the second-highest producing chemist in that lab should have raised questions," said Escobar's attorney James McKenna. "The primary conclusion from the OIG investigation was that it was only Dookhan, but the investigation itself mentioned there were widespread problems at that lab, and there was no further investigation. I welcome DA Rollins review."

Inspector General Cunha said it is Rollins responsibility to provide any potentially exculpatory evidence to defense attorneys. Cunha added defense attorneys in the state have created a "false impression" of his report, which he said is accurate and supported by evidence. There was no evidence, he said, to suggest misconduct by other chemists at the lab.

“District Attorney Rollins is carrying out her duty to provide discovery. We are providing access to our files to facilitate that," Cunha said in a statement Thursday. "In the six years since the release of our Hinton report, no one has come forward with any evidence of wrongdoing beyond what our investigation uncovered.”

Massachusetts Inspector General Glenn A. Cunha in 2014, releasing the findings of his investigation of the Hinton Drug Lab. (Stephan Savoia/AP)
Massachusetts Inspector General Glenn A. Cunha in 2014, releasing the findings of his investigation of the Hinton Drug Lab. (Stephan Savoia/AP)

Earlier this year Middlesex DA Marian Ryan raised questions about the OIG investigation and the work of former chemist Sonja Farak. She was convicted in 2014 of consuming drug evidence she was supposed to be testing at the state lab in Amherst. Farak worked at the Hinton Lab before she worked at Amherst.

Additionally, the office of Norfolk District Attorney Michael Morrissey said it expects to dismiss this year about 200 Hinton Lab cases in which Farak tested the evidence.

In October, DA Ryan wrote a letter to Gov. Charlie Baker saying a "cloud of doubt" lingers about the OIG investigation because it did not look at Farak's testing which could compromise thousands of case in Middlesex County. The OIG responded with a letter defending his investigation, saying the extent of Farak's misconduct was not known until after his investigation was completed.

"The Hinton Lab investigation did not uncover any evidence to question Farak’s productivity or to suspect her of misconduct. While  you point to high testing numbers, as we have explained in detail in our court filings, high
numbers alone are not evidence of malfeasance or misfeasance — or even of high productivity," Cunha wrote to DA Ryan in October. He also promised a "fuller response" to Ryan's letter but has not yet provided one.

Correction: An earlier version of this story mistakenly said that three district attorneys  have questioned the state's investigation into Dookhan's work at the Boston lab. The post has been updated to reflect that two DAs have done so. We regret the error.

This article was originally published on December 17, 2020.

This segment aired on December 18, 2020.


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