SALEM — It was the kind of case that defense lawyers usually concede is a tough one to beat: three hand-to-hand sales of heroin to an undercover police officer, the “marked” money used for the transaction later found on the suspect.
But the case against Carlos Cedeno happened also to be one of thousands that hinged on the work of now-former state crime lab chemist Annie Dookhan.
And on March 14, it became one of the first cases, if not the first, in Essex County dismissed as a result of Dookhan’s alleged misconduct. At the time prosecutors couldn’t go forward because Dookhan had stopped working at the lab, the docket noted.
Then, on Friday, months after prosecutors and Salem police had refiled the charges, the case was dismissed again.
It’s one of an estimated 8,451 drug samples in Essex County that may have been tainted by Dookhan’s involvement. In interviews with state police, Dookhan has admitted to making educated guesses about samples rather than testing them, as well as to tampering with samples so they would turn out to be positive for drugs when initial tests came back negative.
“It’s mind-boggling,” said Carrie Kimball Monahan, a spokeswoman for District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett, whose office is now sorting through the list of samples that came from police departments in Essex County.
At the same time, so are defense attorneys. Of the 8,451 cases in this county, the vast majority involved public defenders or other court-appointed counsel, leaving the attorneys to pore over 7,000 cases.
And that’s on top of the rest of their work.
The county’s courts are also trying to get a handle on the scope of the problem. The Salem Superior Court clerk’s office has been fielding a spate of motions, including lawyers in pending cases seeking delays in trials, and lawyers for those already convicted seeking motions for new trials and stays of sentences being served.
There’s talk of a special session being created to handle all of the cases.
Until then, said Monahan, prosecutors are handling the matters on a case-by-case basis.
Among those cases is that of Andy Jones of Haverhill, who pleaded guilty last July to cocaine trafficking and firearms charges and is serving a six-year state prison term.
Last week his lawyer, Scott Gleason, filed motions seeking a new trial and a stay of Jones’ sentence pending the outcome of the motion.
Judge Howard Whitehead on Friday denied the motion for the stay, but on procedural grounds, meaning Jones will be able to ask again.
That same day, Salem District Court Judge Matthew Nestor opted to dismiss the pending case against Cedeno, 22, of Lynn, who was facing three counts of distributing heroin, after prosecutors said they were unable to go forward with the case.
Cedeno was arrested in December of 2010, after three transactions along Boston Street with an undercover Salem police detective. The sales were all for small amounts of heroin, $40 to $50 bags.
According to a police report, after the third transaction with an undercover officer, Salem police moved in and arrested Cedeno, who had nearly $600 in cash on him.
Cedeno was represented by Ray Buso, a Salem defense attorney.
A 2009 United States Supreme Court decision, Melendez-Diaz vs. Massachusetts, had led to the requirement that a lab chemist who tested the sample must testify.
After the original dismissal last March, the case was refiled, on the chance that another chemist could stand in. By then, not only was the extent of Dookhan’s alleged misconduct known, but she was being arraigned on criminal charges.
Buso could not be reached for comment.
Monahan called the task of going through all of the cases “herculean.”
“It is such an enormous, unprecedented amount of work,” said Monahan. “We’re pretty much at capacity as it is.”
Courts reporter Julie Manganis can be reached at 978-338-2521, via email at email@example.com or on Twitter @SNJulieManganis.