, Salem, MA

September 24, 2012

Swift action needed on mess at state crime lab

The Salem News

---- — The legal mess that officials say was caused by one chemist at a state crime lab will take years to sort out and likely will see some criminals set free as their convictions are overturned.

State officials say drug samples from 34,000 cases dating from 2003 to 2012 may have been mishandled by a chemist, Annie Dookhan, working at the Hinton Laboratory in Jamaica Plain. That means the convictions based on those drug samples are now legally suspect.

There may be thousands of cases in the region alone that are now in question. Defense attorneys say they are preparing to appeal existing convictions and call into question drug evidence in pending cases.

“You are going to see defense attorneys challenging the lab, challenging test results, challenging qualifications, testing procedures, chain of custody, and challenging the test itself,” Andover-based attorney Alexander Cain told reporter Bill Kirk of our sister paper The Eagle-Tribune. “You will see motions, as well, to have independent lab tests. For court-appointed cases, you’ll have lawyers filing for funds, which means taxpayers will have to pay for independent tests. It’s going to cost millions of dollars.”

Last week, Gov. Deval Patrick appointed former Suffolk County prosecutor David Meier to lead the review of the potentially affected criminal cases. Attorney General Martha Coakley’s office has also begun a review of the lab to see if any cases other than those handled by Dookhan are affected.

“The task ... in front of all of us is large but it’s not impossible,” Patrick said last week. “We will get this right. Working together, I have no doubt that we will see justice done and use this experience as a platform for thinking through what kinds of changes in the system might be necessary to have further checks and balances in the future.”

This is nothing short of a disaster, a travesty of justice that is going to cost taxpayers millions and take years to resolve. There may well be some people in jail who were wrongly convicted. But it is also likely that some who are truly guilty will be set free as the evidence that convicted them is tossed out on appeal.

Already, the confusion in the state lab is beginning to clog the courts.

Defense lawyer John Valerio of Andover was in Lawrence District Court earlier this month for a pretrial hearing on a client facing cocaine charges. The drugs that police say they found on him were sent to the Jamaica Plain evidence lab for testing. When it left Lawrence, it was just 3 grams. When he got the test results back from the lab, Valerio told our reporter, the report stated that his client possessed 14 grams.

“In my case, there seems to be a large discrepancy between what was taken from my client and the weight that was analyzed,” he said. “That’s significant.”

Valerio asked for a continuance in the case so he could file discovery motions “to get very specific information about the evidence to see if there was any malfeasance.” The continuance was granted.

In addition to delays in existing cases, lawyers will be seeking to get retrials and appeals added to an already crowded court calendar.

It is an enormous task but one that must be completed quickly. Lives and liberty are at stake here. State officials need to sort out this mess as quickly and efficiently as possible. Then safeguards need to be put in place that minimize the chances of a recurrence.

Judges and juries rely on results from state crime labs to help determine whether individuals charged with crimes are found guilty or innocent. These tests must be conducted with great care and integrity to be scientifically valid and accurate.