Top judge: Mass. crime lab scandal could have substantial impact on cases in federal court in Boston
Federal officials have begun to review the impact the Massachusetts crime lab scandal may have on cases in federal court in Boston, and they already foresee a large task ahead of them.
US District Chief Judge Mark L. Wolf said a team of court officials has discovered that former state chemist Annie Dookhan handled drug samples involved in more than 100 — and possibly as many as 200 — cases.
Those cases are being reviewed by prosecutors, public defenders, and private lawyers to determine whether they might have been spoiled by Dookhan’s involvement, Wolf said Thursday in a telephone interview.
In addition, the judge said, 500 other cases involved samples handled at the Jamaica Plain laboratory during the time Dookhan worked there, from 2003 to March 2012, and so may also be tainted.
The impact could be even more far-reaching because, in some cases, federal prosecutors have used a state drug conviction to trigger a mandatory higher sentence -- or a sentence enhancement -- for a repeat offender in the federal court system. Those state cases will also be under review to determine if Dookhan was involved, the judge said.
“That’s a whole larger universe of cases in which the laboratory did the testing,” said Wolf, who met with other judges Tuesday to discuss the scandal. “That’s a number I don’t think anyone can estimate right now.”
Wolf added, however, that the scandal underscores the concerns that he and other judges have had with lower-level, local drug cases clogging up the federal court system, which is typically reserved for more complex, higher-level cases.
“I think people will be surprised to know that the work of the state Department of Public Health drug lab in Jamaica Plain would have a substantial impact in federal court,” the judge said. “To me, it’s disturbing that the work of a state Department of Public Health lab has the potential to raise questions about the validity of decisions in a large number of cases in the United States District Court, and that significant resources will have to be diverted to address any such issues.”
He said prosecutors, public defenders, and private lawyers, as well as US probation officials, have prioritized reviewing cases in which a defendant is currently in jail, to make sure no one is incarcerated on questionable evidence.
Each case will be judged on its own, Wolf said. However, the judges may consider consolidating the review of case, if that strategy is needed. Wolf said the judges are also considering issuing guidelines on how judges, prosecutors, and public defenders should proceed.
“We will do whatever we do in every case, which is to strive to assure proceedings are fair, results are appropriate, and to ensure public safety,” the judge said.
US Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz said in an interview that the drug samples at issue were likely seized by local police departments who turned them over to the Jamaica Plain laboratory. She said federal agencies such as the FBI and the DEA partnered with those departments to target their “impact players,” the most dangerous and violent, to get them off neighborhood streets.
“It’s our role to help law enforcement, and our role to keep communities safe,” she said in an interview, defending the prosecution of such cases in federal court. “These are individuals who are causing the greatest amount of danger to these communities.”
She also stressed that the focus on urban drug crimes is not at the expense of pursuing white collar crimes, but is rather an essential component of law enforcement.
“We do these cases because we think they are very important cases,” she said, describing partnerships with police in cities from New Bedford to Boston to Lowell. “We are focusing on the big complex cases. Those are our priorities, but also our priorities are keeping neighborhoods safe, and we’ll continue to do that.”Milton J. Valencia can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him onTwitter @miltonvalencia.