As law enforcement officials gather lists of drug cases where evidence could have been tainted by a chemist under investigation, defense lawyers are questioning why state officials failed to catch the problem sooner and why prosecutors said there was no reason for concern when they tried to protest the chemist’s involvement in drug cases.
One high-profile Boston defense lawyer called the closing of a state drug testing crime lab a “colossal” failure of the entire system that allowed a chemist to handle drug evidence improperly without it being detected by her supervisors. After the investigation, State Police suspended a supervisor and the Department of Public Health suspended a division director.
“There is some sort of colossal break in the system that goes far beyond this one individual,” said defense lawyer Rosemary Scapicchio of Boston. “How did the system set up to catch this not catch it? How is it there [was] such a colossal failure of this system so this woman could get away with this for seven years? The procedures in place can’t be being followed.
“The real story is the failure of the system to catch something like this,” she added.
Prosecutors and State Police have said they are furious that there could be miscarriages of justice and people wrongly convicted because of the chemist’s alleged actions at the Hinton State Laboratory in Jamaica Plain. State Police closed the lab indefinitely on Thursday after uncovering potentially thousands of cases, spanning seven years, that could have been improperly handled by a chemist who resigned in March.
‘How did the system set up to catch this not catch it? . . . The procedures in place can’t be being followed.”
State Police and the attorney general’s office are investigating whether any criminal charges will be filed, State Police spokesman David Procopio said Tuesday.
State Police are still compiling lists of samples handled by the chemist in question, according to Procopio. The chemist was responsible for analyzing drug substances and indicating the weights of the drugs. The cases are mainly from Suffolk and Norfolk counties, with some from Bristol County and the Cape and Islands.
Cape and Islands District Attorney Michael O’Keefe said DAs around the state spoke with state officials via telephone Tuesday, and plan another telephone meeting Wednesday. O’Keefe said that reviewing affected cases is labor intensive, and there “will be costs associated with it.”
It will take a few more days before officials fully assess the impact and the number of cases involved, he said.
The primary concern among district attorneys, O’Keefe said, is the “integrity of the criminal justice system. We are going to do everything we can to promote that end.’’
“Clearly the greatest concern is that someone was convicted of a crime based on evidence that wouldn’t support conviction,” said Jake Wark, a spokesman for Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley. “Our deep concern is that defendants were convicted unfairly.”
Scapicchio said defense lawyers around the state were concerned about the chemist’s involvement in criminal cases for the past several months.
In February 2012, the Norfolk district attorney’s office was notified by the Department of Public Health that it was investigating questions about the chain of custody of evidence for a single day in June 2011 involving 90 samples in 60 cases, according to David Traub, a spokesman for Norfolk District Attorney Michael Morrissey.
Morrissey immediately shared the information with defense lawyers. “We made it clear to them as soon as we knew it,” Traub said.