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The drug lab scandal: Who’s cleaning it up?

Veteran Boston lawyer David Meier was handed the unenviable task of fixing the drug lab debacle, one of the state’s biggest law enforcement scandals ever. Is he up to the job?

webb chappell

IT SOUNDS LIKE one of the least appealing jobs ever: Sift through tens of thousands of state and federal drug cases, determine which ones may be compromised by tainted evidence, help shepherd them through a knotty legal system, and then bring some measure of justice to those denied a fair trial. The time frame? Indefinite. The size of the problem? It’s a sprawling mess. The stakes? High. The chances of broad public recognition or gratitude? Low.

Which is to say, it’s just the kind of offer David Meier couldn’t turn down. With an abiding — some might say almost masochistic — commitment to the integrity of the criminal justice system, Meier, a veteran prosecutor now in private practice, was the natural choice when Governor Deval Patrick needed a skilled hand to repair one of the biggest law enforcement scandals in Massachusetts: the alleged widespread misconduct of a chemist at a state drug lab and the serious oversight lapses that allowed it to happen.

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As of late November, the chemist, Annie Dookhan, was known to have handled roughly 60,000 drug samples involving some 34,000 defendants over 8 ½ years at the Hinton State Laboratory Institute in Jamaica Plain. Dookhan, according to an initial investigation, allegedly identified substances as cocaine even when tests showed otherwise and turned negative results for cocaine and other drugs into positive ones. Prosecutors based many, many cases on her work. Anything that Dookhan touched — from her lab results to her testimony at trial — is now suspect.

The scandal’s reach is breathtaking. The failures at the drug lab, which the state closed in August, will cost the public tens of millions of dollars, ripple across much of Eastern Massachusetts, and likely take years to right. People may be locked up or have had their sentences for separate crimes extended based on falsified evidence. There may be others who finished their drug sentences years ago but still live with the consequences: Has it hindered their pursuit of a job? An apartment? A driver’s license?

Since his appointment by the governor in September, the 57-year-old Meier has been developing a master list of defendants who may have been affected, drawing on drug lab data and many other sources. He’s being paid $12,500 a month and is doing the work while maintaining his practice at the Boston law firm Todd & Weld, where he is a partner.

In September, Governor Deval Patrick appointed former prosecutor David Meier (shown at the Suffolk Superior Courthouse) to help resolve cases involving some 34,000 defendants, all touched by alleged failures at a state drug lab.

webb Chappell

In September, Governor Deval Patrick appointed former prosecutor David Meier (shown at the Suffolk Superior Courthouse) to help resolve cases involving some 34,000 defendants, all touched by alleged failures at a state drug lab.

“The job of marshaling the facts on these cases and getting these cases to a point where they can be resolved is a herculean task,” says Max Stern, a longtime defense attorney and president of the Massachusetts Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. Veteran Boston attorney James Sultan, who has known Meier for years, puts it more bluntly. “It’s an absolutely thankless task,” he says. “I think it’s a terrible job.” Sultan, in jest, offered Meier condolences along with congratulations. Meier says, “A lot of people have.”

Having presided over high-profile homicide cases in Middlesex and Suffolk counties, Meier is a public figure to a degree, but not a household name. His reputation in the legal community, however, is sterling. This job, of course, should not even exist. Now that it does, the work is proving to be complicated, frustrating, and contentious. But there does seem to be wide agreement on one thing: David Meier is just the guy to do it.

***

HE WAS, IN MANY RESPECTS, a typical California kid. After spending his first years in Connecticut, David Meier grew up on the campus of Stanford University in Palo Alto, where his father, Gerald, was a prominent economist who specialized in developing countries. The oldest of four boys, David spent much of his youth outside, played a lot of baseball and basketball, and attended the local public high school. He developed a lifelong affinity for the San Francisco Giants.

The Meier boys, though, saw more of the world than many peers. Their father, who taught internationally, took the family to Mexico, the Caribbean, and Europe. David Meier spent two years attending school abroad — first in England, then in Jamaica. And not, his parents insisted, at the fancy schools catering to the children of government officials and elites; in the public schools. “I was taught from a young age to treat people with dignity and respect and to hear people out . . . and to be fair and to be honest and to be true to my values and principles and convictions,” he says. “Perhaps part of that comes from opportunities to experience other people and other cultures and being exposed to different ways of life.”

New England was a natural draw for college, because Meier’s father and his mother, Gretl, had spent time here earning degrees and teaching. Meier chose Amherst College and headed east. It was at Amherst, Meier says, that he developed an interest in the law, intrigued by what he calls “the challenges of trying to evaluate issues and problems and resolve them.” He wrote his senior thesis on the origins of juvenile law. Jim Rehnquist, a close friend and Amherst classmate of Meier’s, says it was evident that Meier, like Meier’s father, was motivated by a public mission.

Meier earned his legal degree from Boston University School of Law in 1981. One of his acquaintances there was the acclaimed screenwriter-producer David E. Kelley, who has often used the names — if not the spirits — of former law school pals as the basis for characters. L.A. Law fans may recall an irksome direct-mail magnate named Dave Meyer, played by the actor Dann Florek.

After law school, Meier was hired as a rookie assistant district attorney in Middlesex County, assigned to Framingham District Court. It became his training ground. In Framingham and later in Cambridge, he tried hundreds of cases in front of juries. Meier developed a persuasive trial demeanor, more methodical than histrionic. “He made it seem as though there was only one possible reasonable answer, and it was a one-word answer starting with a ‘g,’ ” says retired Superior Court judge Hiller Zobel.

As he moved up the ranks, Meier began to see glimmers of injustice. “I remember feeling some unease at times with the pressures that were put upon you as a prosecutor,” he says. Lawyers on both sides of a trial have a tendency to “treat facts as tools you use in your cases,” says Marty Murphy, a friend and prominent Boston lawyer who worked with Meier in the Middlesex DA’s office. Meier bristled at that. He was, Murphy says, “obsessively concerned about the facts,” insistent that they not be manipulated, ignored, or purposefully omitted, even when they might be inconvenient to your side.

In 1989, Meier’s principles were put to the test. About 18 months earlier, a man named Calvin Reid had been arrested for allegedly breaking into the Somerville house of a young couple, raping the pregnant wife, and then making off in their car with a TV, VCR, and stereo. Meier took over the case as the trial approached. Once he dug in, he developed grave concerns about the evidence and about how Reid had been identified. So he laid them out over several hours one Saturday morning to his boss, Tom Reilly, then the first assistant district attorney in Middlesex. Meier wanted to send the wife’s sweat pants out for DNA testing, which at the time was novel — and expensive. Reilly agreed.

When the results came back, they pointed to another man’s DNA, excluding Reid as a suspect. Had Meier just pushed on, it’s conceivable, if not likely, that he could have convicted Calvin Reid. It was a watershed moment for Meier. He had trusted his gut, and his gut had been right. “The ethical commitment to doing the right thing was there from the beginning,” Reilly says. “You didn’t have to instill that in David.”

This sensibility helped make Meier a prime recruit when the Suffolk County district attorney, Ralph C. Martin II, needed a chief of homicide in 1996. Over breakfast at Charlie’s Sandwich Shoppe in the South End, the deal was sealed: Meier would come to Boston and help Martin launch a new era of cooperation between the DA’s office and Boston police, in which prosecutors and cops would, in a break from recent practice, work side by side from the start of major homicide investigations. Though there was some resistance in the police ranks to working more closely with prosecutors, Meier helped define a more productive relationship. “He cared about the city, and he cared about the Police Department, and he cared about getting his cases done,” says Paul Farrahar, who commanded the Boston police homicide unit at the time.

For 12 years, under Martin and then Dan Conley, Meier oversaw some of the city’s biggest prosecutions. He helped dismantle the Theodore Street Posse, one of Boston’s most violent gangs, successfully prosecuting members Gus Swafford and Ricardo Gittens for separate murders. He secured a guilty plea from Patrick John Durham for the long-unsolved stabbing death of 14-year-old Mary Theresa Burhoe in Charlestown in 1981. He sent Chimezie Akara and Andre Green to prison for life for the brazen 2003 shooting of a pregnant woman on an Orange Line train that killed her child. “He stood for what was right,” says Daniel Coleman, a sergeant detective with the Boston Police Department and former head of the homicide unit.

Meier’s intensity as a homicide prosecutor was legendary. As a trial neared, he focused like a laser. You could barely approach him, says David Procopio, a former spokesman for the Suffolk DA’s office. Meier tackled his preparation like a scholar, filling three-ring binders with detailed notes, the margins crammed with arrows, checks, and other symbols. “That trial and that case became his life,” Procopio says.

On the occasions when a case didn’t go his way, Meier wore the loss on his face. In 2004, after a jury acquitted Kyle Bryant of murdering his pregnant 14-year-old girlfriend, Chauntae Jones — even after Bryant told police he’d been present when Jones was stabbed, bludgeoned, and buried in Mattapan — Meier could be seen outside the Suffolk courthouse amid distraught members of Jones’s family. He stared into space, shellshocked.

Over his dozen years in Suffolk County, Meier proved that, working in the toughest neighborhoods, on some of the most horrific crimes, he could be relentless in pursuing and winning convictions. He also proved that justice meant more than putting criminals in prison.

***

THE THREE MEN SAT around a table in a small meeting room at MCI-Shirley: David Meier from the DA’s office, attorney James Sultan, and Sultan’s client, James Haley, there in his prison garb, locked up for 34 years on a 1972 conviction for a Roxbury murder. This was late 2007. Haley, after receiving a bundle of police documents from a public records request, made a persuasive case that his trial had been unfair. Potentially exculpatory evidence had never been turned over to his defense.

It was an odd dynamic that day at the state house of correction. Ordinarily, Sultan says, he would never have let a prosecutor come talk directly to his client. But this was David Meier. He knew Meier was only after the truth. Meier discussed the possibility of Haley pleading guilty to a lesser charge and walking free. Haley said no. He said he couldn’t admit to something he didn’t do. (Meier says he can’t talk about the case, because it remains in civil litigation.)

Meier later filed a motion to vacate Haley’s conviction, saying the state could no longer be confident in the integrity of the trial more than three decades earlier. A judge agreed, and in January 2008 Haley became a free man. But Haley’s release had nothing to do with whether he was innocent or guilty. Indeed, Haley’s former sister-in-law maintained after he got out that she had seen him kill the victim, who was her boyfriend. The DA’s office opted not to retry him, saying too much time had passed to mount an effective case, but prosecutors were clear that this was no exoneration. The operative question was, did James Haley get a fair trial? The only reasonable answer was no.

Meier applied the same standards to a series of other cases, becoming the driving force in Boston behind repairing errors of the past. He helped free and exonerate several men wrongfully convicted of murder, including Donnell Johnson, found guilty in 1996 of killing 9-year-old Jermaine Goffigan two years earlier. Johnson spent five years in prison until a separate federal drug investigation led to guilty pleas by two other men.

There was also Marlon Passley, sentenced to life for a 1995 Boston murder he didn’t commit and whom Meier asked a judge to free in 1999. “In the end, he said, ‘This was as satisfying as any conviction.’ Those were his words,” Ralph Martin recalls Meier saying of the Passley case. “It defies any stereotypical view of a tough prosecutor. He is a tough lawyer, but he’s not cut that way at all.” Sultan puts it differently. “There can be a bureaucratic or intellectual devotion to a concept of due process or a concept of fairness,” he says. “David’s view has a much more humanistic aspect to it.”

Meier is sensitive about this perception, not wanting to give the impression that his moral compass makes him some kind of softie. David Procopio remembers him once joking: “Someday I’d like to get as many headlines for actually putting somebody in jail as I have for getting somebody else out.” Putting people in jail is what prosecutors are expected to do, though. That’s how they’re measured. Meier, who is a trustee of the New England Innocence Project, has always kept a different score card. In his view, what good is toughness without integrity, without credibility?

It can be a difficult ideal to uphold, especially given the many pressures against reopening an old case or halting an existing one. Meier seems almost impervious to them. “He’s going to drill down until he gets the answer, and then he’s going to be completely transparent about it,” says Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis.

A few years ago, Meier took his activism a step further. With Marty Murphy, he led a Boston Bar Association task force that took a deep look at how to prevent wrongful convictions. The task force proposed a new law to allow prisoners post-conviction access to DNA evidence; Massachusetts was one of only a handful of states that did not, by law, grant them that right. The bill passed the Legislature in February and the governor signed it into law.

Donnell Johnson, for one, isn’t willing to sing Meier’s praises. Johnson, now 34, is living in Baltimore, where he was recently laid off from his job with U-Haul. After his release from prison, Johnson went on to earn a college degree with honors. Still feeling burned by the Massachusetts criminal justice system, he hopes to go to law school, to turn his experience into something positive. Of Meier, Johnson says: “He did the right thing by going forward, but he had no choice. Don’t read my case like he did me a favor.”

***

IT’S A DANK FRIDAY evening. The workweek is over. Downtown is emptying out. Meier isn’t quite ready to go home. He lets me into what they call the war room or boiler room. It is here, under fluorescent lights in a nondescript conference room near Beacon Hill, amid bags of M&M’s, jars of peanuts, and a bank of computers, that Meier and his team are trying, bit by bit, to unravel the drug lab tangle.

He works alongside representatives from the State Police and the state Executive Office of Public Safety and Security, support staff from the Patrick administration, and one of Meier’s associates from Todd & Weld. And it’s a slog: scouring lists and documents for the names of defendants whose drug samples might be compromised, figuring out who’s in custody where, and prioritizing the most urgent cases.

As we discuss the enormity of the task, I’m struck by how Meier, despite the thousands of names and details and problems rolling through his mind on this Friday night, can still rattle off facets of homicide cases from years ago — the fingerprint on a coffee mug, the sweat shirt left in a kitchen. It’s all cataloged up there under his trademark dark shag, which wouldn’t be out of place on a Strat player in a bar band.

In conversation, Meier, who is a stocky 5 foot 10, is chatty and informal but a stickler for accuracy. Even slight mischaracterizations or misstatements — out of my mouth or his — he feels compelled to correct. “Strike that,” he says after uttering something he wants to phrase differently.

Like many prosecutors, Meier prefers to keep his family life private. Socially, he likes to hang around law enforcement types. “You go out with the guy and he’s always meeting like four Lowell cops in a bar,” Jim Rehnquist says. About the only personal criticism of Meier I hear from anyone is that he has a habit of promising to call and then never does.

On the drug lab scandal, Meier is responsible for one piece. Attorney General Martha Coakley is leading a criminal investigation into Dookhan, who, as of late November, had pleaded not guilty to two counts of obstruction of justice and one count of falsifying her academic record, charges that could bring more than 20 years in prison. The state inspector general, Glenn Cunha, is conducting a broad review of what went wrong at the lab. But it falls to Meier to begin fixing the damage that’s already been done — to ensure the accused and convicted are granted their constitutional right to due process. “The goal,” Meier says, “is to do everything we can to ensure that the criminal justice system gets it right.” It’s clear that Deval Patrick, who had ultimate authority over the troubled facility, is keeping close tabs on the fallout.

Key players in the process want to get it right, too, but they have their concerns. For Ed Davis, one fear is that a raft of inmates may be released from prison earlier than expected. That’s why Boston’s police commissioner wants to make sure adequate reentry programs are in place. “There’s a real balancing act that we’re trying to accomplish here, by trying to be scrupulously fair to people who have had their rights violated, but also,” Davis says, “making sure we’re keeping the community safe.”

One glitch so far, says Michael O’Keefe, the district attorney for the Cape and Islands and president of the state District Attorneys Association, is that the drug lab data have been less complete than anticipated. After the scandal broke, he says, his top deputy and IT director were sitting in a room nine hours a day trying to build their own database of affected cases, which O’Keefe says could number 4,000 to 5,000 in his jurisdiction. (The other affected counties include Middlesex, Suffolk, Plymouth, and Essex.) The hope is that collecting names and cases from multiple sources will yield a master list from which all parties can work.

Defense lawyers, meanwhile, raise the possibility that everything the Jamaica Plain lab processed, beyond just the cases that Dookhan herself tested, could be unreliable. Anthony Benedetti, chief counsel for the Committee for Public Counsel Services, the state public defender agency, says there are enough questions about Dookhan’s motives and behavior — as well as oversight lapses at the lab — that defense lawyers may challenge any drug charges based on the lab’s work, a prospect that could cost as much as $332 million. Noting that Dookhan has allegedly admitted to State Police that she tampered with evidence, Benedetti says, “How do you know she wasn’t doing that in other cases?”

As of late November, Meier and his team had identified about 10,000 of the 34,000 people who were possibly affected by Dookhan’s work, including roughly 2,000 who were in some form of custody, making them the priority. Meier’s group then planned to focus on the others, piecing together cases file by file. That process could take months.

Ultimately the resolution of all the cases, which have begun cycling through the courts, will depend on how judges, district attorneys, defense lawyers, and other authorities decide to handle them. (Meier intends to have no role in the adjudication.) The judiciary has created special sessions devoted to drug lab cases in courthouses across the state. The remedies will be varied, and they will be vast.

I ask Meier in one of our conversations if he misses the rough-and-tumble intensity of the Suffolk prosecutor’s life. “Yes,” he says with little hesitation. “I miss the intensity. I miss the camaraderie. And there are some things I don’t miss.” Meier, who also teaches a seminar on homicide investigations to third-year BU law students, insists he did not accept the drug lab post out of wistfulness. “In and of itself, change is good,” he says. “I’m very grateful for the opportunity I’ve been given at my law firm.”

Those who know him, though, are thrilled to see him back in a public role. “When I heard he’d been appointed by the governor, I thought, he’s back to public service — because he’s got this very strong streak of serving the public good,” says Margaret Hinkle, a retired Superior Court judge who presided over a number of Meier’s homicide cases. Hinkle and others wonder whether Meier is one day destined for the bench himself.

For Meier — just as in his early days in Middlesex, his big-ticket prosecutions in Suffolk County, and his novel work on wrongful convictions — the drug lab crisis, for now, presents a chance to put his ideals into practice for a larger good.

“In any organization or in any system, there are defining moments. There are defining times,” he tells me. “And I think this is one of them for the criminal justice system.” He continues: “There’s no road map. There’s no blueprint. But there are principles and there are priorities. And is it a challenge? Sure it is. But there’s a right way of going about everything. And this is no different.”

Scott Helman is a Globe Magazine staff writer. E-mail him at shelman@globe.com and follow him on Twitter @swhelman. Additional reporting by Globe staff writer Jonathan Saltzman.

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