Governor Deval Patrick’s administration said today it believes that the criminal cases of 40,323 people may have been tainted by the actions of alleged rogue drug lab chemist Annie Dookhan and the management failures at the now-closed Department of Public Health lab where she worked.
At a State House news conference this afternoon, Boston defense attorney David Meier, who was hired by the administration to determine the scope of the scandal, summarized the research he has overseen since last year when Dookhan’s alleged mishandling of drug evidence was discovered by State Police.The administration’s final tally was nearly 3,000 more than previous estimates offered by Meier.
But to the Committee for Public Counsel Services and the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, the administration’s final tally does not fully capture the damage done to individual defendants. The Committee for Public Counsel Services, the state’s public defender agency, believes all 190,000 cases sent through the Department of Public Health lab dating back to the early 1990s are now suspect and should be dismissed.
“The whole thing is disturbing,’’ Anthony Benedetti, chief counsel for the committee said of Meier’s findings and the drug lab scandal. “I think every one of the 40,000 cases she touched should be thrown out. Whether it was possession (of illegal drugs) or distribution (of illegal drugs), the conviction is tainted because of the conduct of Annie Dookhan.’’
Matthew Segal, legal director of the ACLU Massachusetts, said the state’s criminal justice system must do more to help those whose civil rights may have been violated by Dookhan’s alleged mishandling of evidence, and the failure of her superiors to stop it.
“David Meier's announcement today confirms that we are no closer to solving this problem,’’ said Segal. “There are 40,000 people whose convictions have been potentially tainted and the vast majority of them haven't had a day in court. Merely identifying them isn’t justice.’’
The Massachusetts Bar Association today harshly criticized the administration’s management of the now-closed Hinton lab and also warned the fallout from the scandal will last for years.
“The depth of the crisis is unfathomable and reveals what can only be described as an unconscionable level of gross negligence at the state drug lab,” Martin W. Healy, chief legal counsel for the bar association said in a statement. “The crisis will continue to negatively impact the state’s budget and reverberate throughout the commonwealth’s judicial system for years to come.”
According to the administration, when Meier began his review last year, at least 2,000 people were incarcerated based, in part, on Dookhan’s role as the chemist who tested drug evidence and confirmed it was an illicit substance, or where she was the secondary, confirmatory chemist.
Since last year, the Department of Correction has so far released 337 men and women serving state prison sentences for drug prosecutions involving Dookhan, an administration official said today. The figure does not include anyone released by a county house of correction.
Meier’s task was to identify the universe of individuals who had drug evidence that may have been affected in some way by Dookhan at the Jamaica Plain lab where she worked from 2003 to 2012.
How to correct any errors in prosecutions linked to Dookhan is an issue that district attorneys, mostly in Eastern Massachusetts, have been wrestling with, along with defense attorneys and the state’s court system.
The names of the 40,323 people are now stored in a computer database, and Meier said his priority now is to “to get the information into the hands of appropriate people so that fundamental fairness and justice can be done.’’
He is planning to meet with prosecutors, police, the defense bar, and the judiciary to share the data.
In addition to unraveling hundreds of drug convictions, the scandal has also cost the state millions of dollars to pay individual prosecutors’ offices, multiple state agencies, and the judiciary searching for ways to ensure no one was wrongly convicted.
The state’s inspector general is conducting an investigation into the lab scandal while Attorney General Martha Coakley is prosecuting Dookhan for tampering with evidence, allegations that Dookhan has pleaded not guilty to.
For fiscal 2013, lawmakers set aside $30 million for Dookhan-related costs, and the administration set up a procedure that required other government agencies to apply for funding to the state Administration and Finance Agency.
Today, the administration said it has approved $10.4 million in requests, of which only $7.6 million has so far been spent by the agencies involved.
The state has agreed to pay Meier’s law firm $12,500 a month since he took over the job last October, Meier said.
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