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Scandal Rocks Boston as City Realizes that Thousands of People Were Falsely Convicted for Drugs

Court administrators in Mass. are scrambling.
 
 
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Court administrators in Massachusetts are scrambling to set up special court sessions to address the cases of more than a thousand people imprisoned after being convicted of drug crimes based on lab evidence submitted by Annie Dookhan, the now disgraced former state crime lab analyst. Dookhan herself was arrested last Friday for her fraudulent work at the lab, as the scandal continues to reverberate across the state's criminal justice system.

According to State Police reports obtained by the Boston Globe, Dookhan has admitted not performing proper lab tests on drug samples for "two or three years," forging colleagues' signatures, and improperly removing evidence from storage. Citing the same reports, the Boston Herald reported that Dookhan had admitted to "intentionally turning a negative sample into a positive a few times" and to "dry-labbing" samples, where she classified samples as drugs without actually testing them.

"I messed up bad, it's my fault," Dookhan told police, explaining that "she did what she did in order to get more work done."

Dookhan's misconduct, which first came to light in June 2011, has already shaken the Dept. of Public Health, whose commissioner, John Auerbach, has resigned, as have two other managers at the Hinton Laboratories facility in Jamaica Plain where the lab was located. The crime lab was consolidated earlier this year into the Dept. of Public Safety as part of a budgetary move.

The incident has also raised the question of systemic issues affecting the crime lab. In internal emails leaked to the Globe, laboratory staff went on record as far back as 2008 describing "the situation in the evidence office [as] past the breaking point." That was before some of the now former management at Hinton took those positions, though not before Dookhan. The Globe article describes "a staff drowning in work, instances of misplaced evidence in crime cases, and mounting frustrations over the Patrick administration’s seeming indifference."

Attorney General Martha Coakley and the State Police charge that Dookhan's mishandling of drug evidence is a crime under the state's broadly written witness intimidation law. She is also charged with falsifying academic credentials for claiming a master's degree in chemistry from the University of Massachusetts-Boston, a degree which the school said it never issued.

Dookhan tested some 60,000 drug samples in 34,000 criminal cases during her nine years at the now shuttered lab. Some 1,141 people are currently serving drug sentences in state prisons or county jails in cases where she had a hand in testing the drug evidence. It is not known how many of those cases have been tainted by Dookhan's actions.

Now, the state court system is beginning to deal with the fallout. Twenty defendants jailed pending trial have already been released, and hearings will begin in mid-October to hear motions to put the sentences of already-convicted inmates on hold and to request bail.

One defense attorney, Bernard Grossberg, who has already seen one client's sentence put on hold because Dookhan was involved in his case, told the Associated Press that judges hearing the cases in the special sessions would need to hear little more than that Dookhan was involved in the testing.

"My feeling is as soon as they call the case, if Dookhan's name is on the drug certificate, nothing further needs to be asked and the sentence should be put on hold immediately," Grossberg said. "Later on, you can figure out motions to withdraw guilty pleas or upset convictions."

The cases of the people currently serving time after conviction where Dookhan was involved are only the beginning. Gov. Patrick Deval (D) has said he wants to deal with them first, then the cases of people who have already done their time and those currently awaiting trial.

Phillip Smith is an editor at DRCNet.
 
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