SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

April 6, 2013

Twists of fortune land man on probation in drug case

BY JULIE MANGANIS
STAFF WRITER

---- — PEABODY — Duane Collins may be both the luckiest and unluckiest person to get arrested on drug charges on the North Shore.

Collins, 54, of Lynn, walked out of court yesterday for what he said he hopes will be the last time, after an eight-year-long ride on a legal roller coaster.

It started in 2005, when Collins was drinking at the bar one summer night at Su Chang’s in Peabody. When bartenders realized he’d had too much to drink, they called Peabody police, who escorted the unhappy Collins outside.

Collins grew belligerent when told he couldn’t drive home, a prosecutor said, leading to his arrest on a disorderly conduct charge. Police also towed his Ford Explorer, but during an inventory search discovered more than an ounce of cocaine tucked into a camera case inside the vehicle.

That led to a drug trafficking charge and, eventually, a 5-to-71/2 year prison term.

Then the U.S. Supreme Court decided a case, Commonwealth vs. Melendez-Diaz, finding that defendants in drug crimes have the right to confront and question in court the drug lab analysts who tested the evidence against them.

Based on that decision, Collins, who had served a little more than a year of his prison term, won a new trial and was released. Prosecutors then offered him a plea deal, which would have required him to serve just a few more months in custody.

But then Collins’ luck turned again. He was arrested by Lynn police in 2011 after they spotted him passing cars erratically on the Lynnway and suspected him of drunken driving. Collins wasn’t drunk, it turned out, but police once again found more than an ounce of cocaine in his vehicle, and charged him, once again, with trafficking.

The plea deal was off the table, and Collins awaited a trial, out on $40,000 bail in both cases.

His luck turned yet again. A Salem Superior Court judge ruled that police had gone too far when they looked through Collins’ car following that 2011 traffic stop. The judge threw out the evidence.

And then Collins had some more good luck. Annie Dookhan, a chemist at the state lab in Jamaica Plain, was accused of tampering with drug evidence. Her arrest opened the door for hundreds of drug defendants around the state to challenge their convictions.

And Dookhan, it turned out, was the chemist who had tested the drugs seized from Collins back in 2005.

Still, there was a chance the old case could be re-tried, because Peabody police still had the evidence and could have had it tested again.

But yesterday it all came to an end, when prosecutor Michael Patten and Collins’ lawyer, Russell Sobelman, reached an agreement under which Collins would plead guilty to a reduced charge of cocaine possession with intent to distribute and receive a two-year jail term, with a year of that time to be served and the balance suspended for six months.

Since Collins had already served more than a year in prison, he was free to walk out of court. He’ll spend six months on unsupervised probation.

Judge Timothy Feeley also ordered police to return the cooler from the 2011 case, as well as $2,200 in cash, to Collins.

Sobelman said Collins has turned his life around.

As he left court, Collins waved goodbye to a reporter, quipping, “I’m moving out of this county.”

Courts reporter Julie Manganis can be reached at 978-338-2521, via email at jmanganis@salemnews.com or on Twitter @SNJulieManganis.