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DA criticizes response to crime lab gaps

Problem was played down, Morrissey says

The Norfolk district attorney on Saturday criticized the initial response of health officials to problems at a Jamaica Plain crime laboratory, saying it did not match the seriousness and scope of the questions concerning a former chemist’s handling of evidence.

District Attorney Michael Morrissey’s comments came two days after state officials shut down Hinton State Laboratory Institute indefinitely. State Police and the attorney general’s office are investigating complaints that a laboratory chemist, who has since resigned, repeatedly broke rules about documenting samples.

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State health officials told Morrissey’s office in February that the problems were restricted to a batch of 90 samples, representing 60 cases from his county. State Police launched an investigation after their initial review suggested the protocol breaches may have occurred more often.

“One case is too many. Sixty cases was a lot and was disturbing,” Morrissey said. “But the breadth and scale of the problem appears to be much broader than what was originally disclosed to us in February.”

Two letters sent in February by the state Department of Public Health offer a timetable and some explanation for actions taken by the department. One of the letters also described the chemist, who resigned in March, as being in good standing among colleagues.

“Prior to this incident, she had no personnel issues and was well respected for the accuracy of her work and her dedication to the Laboratory’s mission,” wrote Linda Han, director of the Bureau of Laboratory Sciences, in a letter dated Feb. 21.

Officials have not identified the chemist, but several people familiar with the investigation have identified her to the Globe as Annie Dookhan of Franklin.

In June 2011, the lab discovered cases in which a chemist appeared to have been in possession of certain samples without updating logs as required, the Feb. 21 letter said.

After lab managers made the discovery, the letter states, it appeared that the chemist went back and updated log entries for some of the dates in question.

Managers at the lab removed the chemist from her testing duties on June 21, 2011, according to the letter. They did not, however, report the allegations to the public health commissioner until Dec. 1, 2011, the letter states.

The Feb. 21 letter to Morrissey explained that decision: “The laboratory managers had not reported this incident to the DPH central office because they did not appreciate its potential legal significance and because of their opinion that the integrity of the test results had not been affected.”

After learning of the complaint, health officials began to investigate.

In late January, the governor’s counsel called Morrissey and informed him for the first time that breaches had been identified, the district attorney said. In a Feb. 1 letter, Han sought to preempt concerns about the impact of the breaches.

“At this time, there is no evidence that this had an impact on the integrity of the samples or the accuracy of the sample analysis,” Han wrote.

Speaking on Saturday, Morrissey said he felt the initial descriptions of the breaches did not measure up to the seriousness of the problem. His office has dropped charges in some cases because of doubts about the integrity of drug evidence.

He also said he felt the department acted too slowly.

Concerns have grown about the cases potentially affected, which could number in the thousands.

“Those cases will have to be reviewed to determine what the impact of the February disclosure is,” said David Traub, a spokesman for the Norfolk district attorney’s office.“That could be a complex task because many criminal prosecutions are complex and may involve other nondrug charges in any given case.”

David Kibbe, a spokesman for the Department of Public Health, declined to respond to Morrissey’s comments.

In a statement released Friday, John Auerbach, the public health commissioner, said his department had launched an internal investigation after learning of the new allegations that prompted Governor Deval Patrick to order the lab shut.

“We continue to fully cooperate with investigators and will provide them with the results of our internal findings as soon as possible,” he said.

Lieutenant Daniel Richard, a spokesman for the Massachusetts State Police, on Saturday declined to offer a timetable for the separate investigation run by the State Police and the attorney general’s office.

Adam Sege can be reached at adam.sege@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @AdamSege.

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