Convicted drug dealer to be released, as state drug lab scandal fallout continues

In what may be the first of a wave of such actions, a Superior Court judge today vacated the conviction of a drug dealer, ordering him to be released 2 1/2 years early from prison, because of questions raised about the handling of the evidence in his case.

David Danielli will be released because the person who tested the suspected oxycodone pills he allegedly possessed was Annie Dookhan, a chemist at the state drug testing lab in Jamaica Plain. Dookhan’s alleged mishandling of drug evidence at the lab in Jamaica Plain may have jeopardized thousands of drug cases, officials have said.

Danielli’s attorney, John T. Martin, said that Judge Paul Troy “made the decision many future judges are going to make on many future cases. That’s the way it’s going to be.”

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Norfolk District Attorney Michael Morrissey’s office supported Danielli’s bid for release.

“The Danielli matter is not the end of the fallout from the problems at the DPH [Department of Public Health] drug lab,” Morrissey’s office said in a statement. “The Constitution demanded that we join defense counsel in seeking this defendant’s release while we reassess and reexamine the evidence and the case against him. We will work with defense counsel on this case and on other cases as long as it takes to fulfill the protections of the United States Constitution.”

Martin said Danielli would be brought to Norfolk Superior Court in Dedham Thursday afternoon where he will be freed from custody.

Martin said in a telephone interview that the judge concluded that the tainted evidence undermined Danielli’s guilty plea and that he should be returned to the legal status of someone who is accused of a crime, not convicted of a crime.

“The case is not over; it’s like a reset,” Martin said. “The case is now back to exactly where he had been, had he never been in jail.” But, he added, the seized pills are now so tainted, Danielli’s freedom may become permanent.

Prosecutors have gone into court previously and asked that pretrial detainees be freed on personal recognizance if Dookhan handled the evidence in their cases. But the Danielli case appeared to be one of the first where a person who was convicted and serving a prison sentence was freed.

Dookhan, a chemist who worked at the lab for nine years, allegedly mishandled drug evidence used in criminal cases by altering the weight of drugs, not calibrating machines correctly, and manipulating samples to test as drugs when they were not.

Dookhan may have handled 60,000 drug samples, in 34,000 cases, and some or all of the evidence may be tainted, State Police have told prosecutors.

The scandal at the lab broke in late August. Law enforcement officials immediately said they wanted to take steps to ensure that no one had been wrongly convicted because of the mishandling of evidence.

Also today, John Auerbach, who said Monday he would resign as the state’s public health chief because of the scandal, said he was “furious” about what happened at the lab, which was overseen by his department until the State Police took it over in July.

He said he felt “complete anger that the actions of a single person caused so much damage and harm.”

In comments this morning before a meeting of the state Public Health Council, he said, “I accept no responsibility for the actions of a rogue chemist,” but at the same time he said that ultimately the responsibility was his.

The Globe has reported that internal e-mails from chemists and supervisors at the lab described a staff drowning in work, instances of misplaced evidence, and mounting frustration over the Patrick administration’s seeming indifference.

Auerbach said, “The last five years the state of the economy has affected everybody. Everybody has had to tighten their belt. ... Budgets were reduced.”

But reductions “should never be an excuse” for lack of oversight, said Auerbach.

Auerbach, who has been in his job for 5 1/2 years, has been a popular fixture in public health agencies for more than two decades. He is expected to stay in his post a few more weeks. He has accepted a post as the director of Northeastern University’s Urban Health Research Institute; he will also be a professor there.