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State says chemist at drug lab imperiled evidence

A chemist at a state drug-testing laboratory is accused of circumventing standard procedures in the handling of drug evidence, lapses that could jeopardize thousands of drug prosecutions and convictions in Massachusetts over the past several years, the head of the State Police said Thursday.

State Police Colonel Timothy P. Alben said the Hinton State Laboratory Institute in Jamaica Plain, which had conducted about half of the state’s drug testing, was shut down Thursday as investigators probe the extent of the “malfeasance.”

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District attorneys across the state who used the facility for local prosecutions are being asked to review all cases in which the chemist was involved to determine whether evidence was mishandled.

The concern is twofold: that the state will be faced with the cost of retrying hundreds of defendants who may seek to have convictions thrown out because of faulty drug testing and that some people were falsely convicted and imprisoned, based on errors in drug testing.

“Our concern has to be about any kind of miscarriage of justice that has occurred as a result of this person’s malfeasance,” Alben said at a news conference at State Police headquarters in Framingham. “The ramification . . . is the potential that we’ve had people incarcerated and wrongfully prosecuted.”

Officials said her responsibilities as a chemist included testing and weighing evidence, and that any miscalculations or failure to follow procedures had the potential to derail a conviction or cause a false conviction. For instance, levying drug-trafficking charges, and the more severe sentences that come with them, depend on accurate weights.

Governor Deval Patrick, who ordered the laboratory closed, said in a statement that “this is deeply troubling information.”

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It remained unclear Thursday how much the Department of Public Health, which ran the laboratory until recently, knew about the breach in protocol, and why it was not brought to the attention of State Police earlier.

Problems with the chemist’s work surfaced more than a year ago, and she was removed from testing duties, officials said. In June 2011, the laboratory discovered that the transfer of evidence involving 90 drug samples was improperly logged, according­ to Anne Goldbach, forensic resources director for the Committee for Public Counsel Services, the state public defender agency.

But more than six months after her removal from the laboratory, the chemist testified in a court case as part of her role in handling evidence, Goldbach said. That January case is now under appeal because of her testimony, Goldbach said.

In February, the Public Health Department sent letters to the Norfolk district attorney’s office, alerting it to the problem of the previous June. That spurred a series of legal challenges to other pending cases involving the chemist.

In March, the chemist resigned.

Alben said State Police were notified of the seriousness of the breach only weeks before taking over the laboratory last month. An audit in recent days showed the extent of the problem, necessitating the laboratory’s immediate closing, he said.

John Auerbach, commissioner of the Department of Public Health, said in a prepared statement Thursday that his agency is conducting its own investigation. He said the findings are “deeply disturbing” and that his agency will continue to cooperate with investigators.

“The department is also reviewing our policies and procedures and will take appropriate administrative actions as we conduct that review,” he said.

The statement said the division director previously responsible for the lab’s management and oversight has been on leave, pending the State Police investigation and an internal review.

Attorney General Martha Coakley’s office said it is also working with State Police to determine how many cases are at issue and to review whether criminal charges are warranted.

Officials did not identify the chemist, but said she was employed by the Department of Public Health and had worked at the laboratory since 2003.

Several people briefed on the investigation, however, identified her as Annie Dookhan, of Franklin. She could not be reached for comment.

On Thursday night, reporters and television crews waited outside her two-story home but no one came to the door.

“There are protocols that are in place for every chemist to go through . . . and there were breaches in that,” Alben said. He said the failure to properly review the breaches until recently has become part of the State Police investigation.

The Massachusetts District Attorneys Association said in a statement that it has requested a list of criminal cases in which the chemist was involved and will “take the appropriate action necessary to ensure that justice is done.”

The association said it plans to share the list with defense lawyers.

The laboratory handled about 8,000 cases a year from local police districts statewide, said Guy Vallaro, head of the State Police crime lab.

Until the State Police took over processing of all cases on July 1, their lab, by comparison, handled about 6,000 cases a year. Two other facilities, in Worcester and in Amherst, are now under State Police jurisdiction, as well.

Dave Procopio, a State Police spokesman, said 10 chemists who worked at the Jamaica Plain laboratory have been placed on temporary leave until they can be assigned to new positions at the State Police lab in Sudbury. He said they must undergo new training because the State Police laboratory has a higher accreditation level and follows more stringent standards than the other facilities, including the one in Jamaica Plain.

Anthony Benedetti, chief counsel for the Committee on Public Counsel Services, which probably handled most of the cases, said he has been assured by district attorneys that they will move swiftly if they believe anyone was wrongly convicted or improperly sentenced.

“We will do everything we can to ensure that injustice is corrected and wrongtful convictions are quickly reversed,” he said. “The scope of the damage done is breathtaking, and the actions of this individual are outrageious.”

He also said the finding reinforces the reasoning behind a 2009 US Supreme Court ruling – on a petition filed by his office – that found it was unconstitutional for courts to automatically allow the results of drug testing as evidence without requiring a chemist to
testify.

John Ellement of the Globe staff and Globe correpondent Colin A. Young contributed to this report. Milton J. Valencia can be reached at MValencia@
globe.com. Follow him on
Twitter @MiltonValencia.

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