SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

Opinion

September 24, 2012

Swift action needed on mess at state crime lab

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.”

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