Meanwhile, state prosecutors are looking into what role, if any, other chemists in the DPH lab may have had in mishandling evidence. Previously, public health officials had branded Dookhan as a “rogue” chemist acting alone.
“The question is whether the problem is not Annie Dookhan, but a lab problem,” said Bernard Grossberg, who represents Huffman, a convicted drug dealer now in prison.
Huffman, 55, who has a 19-page record dating to 1975, pleaded guilty to trafficking in cocaine and heroin, unlawful possession of a firearm, and other charges and was sentenced to seven to 10 years, until the Dookhan allegations surfaced later in August. On Monday, Grossberg will ask a judge to release Huffman and put off sentencing while the drug lab investigation continues. It is unlikely that the convictions will survive, Grossberg said.
“He was elated,” Grossberg said. “He doesn't want to get his hopes up until he gets to court. But she contaminated the drugs. It’s not a situation where the drugs can be retested.”
Grossberg said whether Huffman or any of his other clients are guilty of the crime is not the point. “We’re not talking about guilty,” he said. “It’s whether or not the Commonwealth can prove its allegations. I’m getting calls from clients I haven’t spoken to in years. It’s a mess.”
Attorney Susan Rayburn said that her client, Juan Irene, 51, should have been released months ago when prosecutors first realized that Dookhan had potentially mishandled evidence in a large number of drug cases. Irene, who has been in jail for months awaiting trial on charges of selling heroin to an undercover officer, was not released until Sept. 6, when an assistant district attorney made the request in light of Dookhan’s role in analyzing the drug evidence against Irene.
“I don’t think it’s right to wait until the media got a hold of the issue in August and then act like you’re so concerned” about defendants’ rights, said Rayburn, who added that she was referring to senior prosecutors. “For months, we were fed little bits of information, always with an eye to minimizing” the misconduct by Dookhan, Rayburn said.
Although her client still technically faces drug charges, Rayburn doubts the case can come to trial.
“We can’t put evidence before the jury that we are unsure of,” she explained. “We cannot put evidence before the court that has her name on it.”
Marcus Pixley was freed, over the objection of the Suffolk district attorney, after his $5,000 bail was reduced to $1,000 on Sept. 12. Pixley, 51, was arrested on charges of selling crack to an undercover officer and resisting arrest on Feb. 27, 2011. He has a long criminal record that includes convictions for selling cocaine, rape, and other charges and was deemed a habitual offender.
Pixley’s lawyer, Veronica White, said Pixley had been held for 13 months with severe medical problems on a case built on tainted evidence.
“When the government puts someone in an 8-by-7-foot cell and tells them when they will sleep and eat and wake up, it’s the most intrusive thing you can do to somebody,” said White, adding that she will also fight to clear other clients whose cases also hinged on drugs tested by Dookhan.
“All of these cases that come out of that lab are presumptively tainted,” she said. “You can’t limit everything to Annie Dookhan. There are other people who should be held accountable.”
With many more defendants expected to ask to be set free, Conley said the court system has to come up with a comprehensive approach. Otherwise, the disputed caseload could become overwhelming.
“We’re going to need the resources to assign full-time personnel to assess each defendant’s conviction or bail status and make a fully informed decision on how to proceed,” Conley said.
Kay Lazar of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Andrea Estes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Scott Allen can be reached at email@example.com.