Special courts to hear load of cases in drug lab scandal

Franklin-09/27/12- State lab chemist Annie Dookham leaves her Franklin home in her suv. Boston Globe staff photo by John Tlumacki (metro)
No criminal charges have yet been filed against state laboratory chemist Annie Dookhan.
The Boston Globe

Special courts are being established to handle the wave of criminal cases that could be reopened by the actions of a state chemist who admitted altering drug test results and forging colleagues’ initials at a Jamaica Plain laboratory.

Robert Mulligan, chief justice of the state trial court, pledged Thursday to use every possible resource to make sure the cases — expected to number in the thousands — are dealt with expeditiously. The business hours of courts may need to be extended because of the sheer number of cases, Mulligan said.

Prosecutors and defense lawyers pressed for the special courts, described by some judges as unprecedented in Massachusetts.

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The precise mechanics of the special courts remain to be worked out. That includes determining which judges will hear the cases in district court and superior court in each county.

The administration of Governor Deval Patrick asked all of the agencies involved in investigating the scandal, and working to repair the damage wrought, to estimate how much their work will cost. The governor plans to ask the Legislature for funds to cover those costs, which could end up in the millions of dollars.

The Suffolk district attorney’s office has estimated it will need at least $1 million to revisit the thousands of cases its prosecutors brought using test results generated by the chemist at the heart of the scandal, Annie Dookhan.

Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley said his office was already swamped before the drug lab “disaster,” which he said was escalating by the day.

“Now, we are looking at our annual caseload increasing by half in one fell swoop,” Conley said. “We are struggling to keep up with the new cases pouring in while trying to prevent the normal work of the office from grinding to a halt.

“Specialized sessions will hopefully bring some order to the chaos and ensure that the most urgent cases get first priority,” Conley said. “It makes sense to do this and do it quickly.”

Jay Gonzalez, administration and finance secretary for the Patrick administration, sent a memo Thursday seeking work and cost estimates to more than a dozen agencies, including district attorneys, the attorney general, the courts, the public defenders, the state departments of public safety and public health, as well as David Meier, designated by Patrick last week to review the thousands of potentially tainted criminal cases.

Dookhan’s admission to State Police about her alleged misdeeds, made public Wednesday, has sparked profound doubts among prosecutors and defense lawyers about the 60,000 drug samples she handled over her nine years at the lab, run at the time by the Department of Public Health.

So far, authorities have found that more than 1,100 inmates in state prisons and county jails were convicted based on evidence analyzed by Dookhan. Judges have freed, reduced the bail, or suspended the sentences of at least 20 defendants.

No criminal charges have yet been filed in the lab case, but Attorney General Martha Coakley is conducting a wide-ranging criminal investigation.

Patrick, speaking to reporters Thursday, said he expected charges to be brought. Asked if he thought Dookhan should face prison time, Patrick responded: “First of all, I’m not a prosecutor. The attorney general is investigating. The State Police is doing exactly what they should be doing. The attorney general has to make a decision about charges. I fully expect and indeed I hope that there are charges.”

Dookhan, who spoke to State Police assigned to Coakley’s office in August without a lawyer, still has not hired one, according to law enforcement officials. She has declined to speak to reporters.

The 100-page State Police report characterizes a lab rife with suspicion about Dookhan’s shoddy work habits and unusually high output. Supervisors largely stood by her for more than a year, the report said, despite evidence that Dookhan had lied on her resume and removed drug evidence without authorization.

As a result, the convictions and pending charges of thousands of suspects hang in the balance.

“It’s important to expedite the resolution of these cases,” said Michael Traft, whose client Manuel J. Abreu was serving a 17-year sentence based on drug samples tested by Dookhan until he was released on bail Tuesday. “There was serious misconduct that compromised the integrity of a large number of convictions, and we need to address this as soon as possible.”

Prosecutors and defense lawyers believe that the cases of incarcerated defendants should be the new courts’ top priority.

“It’s a huge, huge problem,” said Lisa Hewitt, general counsel for the Committee for Public Counsel Services, which oversees the provision of legal services to the poor. “Not only are these individuals faced with incarceration, but there are collateral consequences. People had parental rights terminated. People lost public housing. People were deported. There are so many things attached to this situation.”

A special court will be created in each county, according to a statement from Mulligan, and a judge will be designated to oversee the new court, according to one judge briefed on the plan.

It is possible that more than a single judge will hear the cases, depending on the workload, the judge said.

“I have never, ever seen anything like this,” said the judge, who is not authorized to speak to the media and therefore requested to remain anonymous. “It’s astounding. The response has been very positive in terms of the commitment that individuals who are generally on opposites sides have to justice and to individual rights. That’s been very encouraging.”

Said another judge, who also requested anonymity, “This is something unprecedented as far as I’m concerned.”

Problems have emerged in drug labs elsewhere in the United States, but only rarely.

In California, Deborah Madden, a former crime lab technician, is on trial in federal court for allegedly stealing cocaine from a San Francisco laboratory, which led to the dismissal of hundreds of cases.

Scott Sugarman, a San Francisco criminal lawyer, said that several of his clients had cases dismissed because of the scandal, and that he and other lawyers were stunned by Madden’s alleged actions.

“The public and defense lawyers kind of assumed that the scientific part of police agencies and prosecutions are sort of neutral and have integrity to them. And, unfortunately, it told us that even something as simple as testing drugs doesn’t [always], unfortunately, and we can’t take it for granted,” Sugarman said.

“It was pretty shocking to us that it happened,” he said.

Scott Burns, executive director of the National District Attorneys Association, said Dookhan’s alleged actions are not without precedent but far from typical.

“I can’t stress enough that in my opinion, this is a rare, rare exception in labs across the country,” said Burns, a former district attorney in Utah who also served as deputy drug czar in the White House during George W. Bush’s administration.