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State closes drug testing lab amid probe of chemist

A chemist at a state drug laboratory in Jamaica Plain breached procedures in the handling of evidence in drug cases, raising the specter that people have been wrongly convicted on tainted evidence, the head of the State Police said today.

The chemist, a woman who worked at the lab from 2003 until earlier this year, was involved in testing drugs for thousands of cases, said Colonel Timothy Alben.

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District attorneys across a wide swath of Massachusetts will now have to review their cases to see if the chemist was involved, officials said.

“I think we’re all furious about this,” said Alben. “Our concern is about any miscarriage of justice that’s out there.”

The State Police were directed by the governor to close the laboratory down as the investigation continues, he said.

Authorities are trying to determine exactly what happened, how it happened, and the exact number of drug samples and cases affected. The State Police are also working with the attorney general’s office to determine whether there was “potential wrongdoing,” Alben said.

Alben did not release the woman’s name, but two other officials familiar with the investigation identified her as Annie Dookhan of Franklin. She could not be reached for comment this afternoon.

An investigation by the Department of Public Health noticed discrepancies in June 2011, and the woman was removed from testing duties at that time before eventually resigning in March of this year, the Department of Public Health said. The State Police took over the lab this summer as directed under the state’s fiscal 2013 budget.

In the past five days, Alben said, officials had an unpleasant surprise, uncovering information that led them to believe there were more “improprieties” than initially thought.

The problems, investigators believe, were “isolated to one particular individual,” Alben said. “This is all focused on one particular former employee of the Department of Public Health.”

The state’s 11 district attorneys issued a statement, saying they had requested a list of cases that were identified by the State Police as questionable.

“We, as District Attorneys, will take the appropriate action necessary to ensure that justice is done. We have notified our counterparts in the Public Defender community to let them know that they will be provided the list of cases as soon as we obtain it,” the statement said.

The Jamaica Plain lab did work on drug evidence in cases in Suffolk, Bristol, Norfolk, the Cape and islands, and, in some cases, Middlesex and Essex counties, said Anthony Benedetti, chief counsel for the Committee for Public Counsel Services. Thousands of cases may be affected, he said.

Benedetti said that public defenders likely represented many of the defendants in the potentially flawed cases. He said the chemist could have compromised the evidence in thousands of cases.

He said the district attorneys he has spoken with have promised to move swiftly if they believe that a person was wrong convicted or improperly sentenced.

They told him, he said, that “in situations where it is believed that there is any chance of an improper conviction ... they will do everything in their power, and as swiftly as they can, to correct it.”

“They fear that people have gone to prison on flawed evidence,” he said.

The officials at today’s news conference gave few concrete details on exactly what the chemist was believed to have done.

Guy Vallaro, director of the State Police crime lab, said there are procedures and policies followed in every lab and “some of them weren’t followed appropriately.”

Vallaro did give a general description of the process, saying drugs are brought to the lab, kept in a vault, and signed over to the chemists who analyze them. The chemists both determine the type of drug and, depending on the case, weigh the drugs.

Asked what the chemist’s motivation was believed to be, Alben said that would require more in-depth investigation.

Drug samples that would have been headed to the Jamaica Plain lab are now being routed to the State Police lab in Sudbury.

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