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Mass. district attorneys fret at lapses found at drug lab

The state’s district attorneys are taking their concerns over wrongdoing at a state drug-testing laboratory directly to Governor Deval Patrick, drafting a letter critical of the alleged mishandling of evidence and asking for more information to address what they have called a potentially damaging blow to the prosecution of thousands of cases.

The prosecutors and the state’s public defender’s office learned late Tuesday that a chemist at the center of a criminal investigation had been involved in handling more than 50,000 drug samples in an estimated 34,000 cases. Those cases may have to be reviewed to determine whether any evidence had been tainted, a task that could consume significant resources.

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Last week Patrick, who called the allegations “deeply troubling,” ordered the immediate closure of the laboratory in Jamaica Plain.

The Massachusetts District Attorneys Association drafted a letter to Patrick and the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security, asking for more information about the chemist’s involvement in handling the evidence and inquiring about how to best identify and locate the defendants whose cases might be affected.

Of particular concern to the district attorneys is what the state Department of Public Health, which ran the laboratory until State Police took over on July 1, knew of the chemist’s alleged wrongdoing, and when. Commissioner John Auerbach has refused to answer questions in person about the incident, though letters obtained by the Globe show his office knew about the apparent improprieties but did not alert outside prosecutors until months after they were discovered.

“There’s concern there, and I’m sure that will be part of the investigation,” said Worcester District Attorney Joseph D. Early Jr., head of the District Attorneys Association.

He said the main concern among district attorneys is that justice is served.

“We need more information,” he said. “Our paramount concern is making sure justice is served, and we don’t want to see anybody behind bars that doesn’t deserve to be there.”

Cape & Islands District Attorney Michael O’Keefe added, “We really do need some additional information about the scope of this problem before we can fashion a comprehensive kind of solution.”

The chemist, Annie Dookhan, of Franklin, resigned from the Department of Public Health in March. She had been removed from lab testing duties in June, when officials within her department first discovered wrongdoing.

Auerbach has said in statements that the matter is subject to a criminal investigation by State Police and the attorney general’s office, and that his office is conducting an internal review. The head of the lab was placed on leave.

“The serious lapses that occurred at the DPH drug lab are unacceptable,” Auerbach said in a statement Wednesday. “We are completing a top-to-bottom review of DPH’s protocols and operations to assure the public that responsibility will be assigned and our work going forward meets the highest standards of professionalism.”

Last week the State Police, which now does all drug testing in the state, also placed the chemist’s supervisor on leave.

“We recognize the seriousness of this situation and are committed to ensuring the fair administration of justice in the Commonwealth,” the State Police said in a statement. The State Police said officials realized the extent of the wrongdoing only after the department took over the laboratory.

The statement also said that officials have contacted other agencies — including the state Trial Court, the Department of Correction, and the Parole Department — seeking to cross-reference information about defendants and the drug cases, in order to contact defendants.

As a chemist in the drug laboratory, Dookhan had been responsible for testing drug samples and weighing them. According to DPH letters sent to Norfolk prosecutors in February, investigators were probing whether she failed to properly log evidence that she was handling and had removed from an evidence room. Investigators are looking at whether someone doctored the evidence logs after the impropriety was first noticed. Dookhan has not plied to requests for comment, though her husband has told reporters she is a scapegoat.

The Committee for Public Counsel Services, the state’s public defenders’ office, which probably handled most of the cases in court, called the wrongdoing a “colossal” error.

“It has the potential to be absolutely huge,” said Anne Goldbach, forensic resources director of the defenders’ office. She said defense lawyers are waiting to see what prosecutors do, whether they will voluntarily seek to reduce a defendant’s bail, or ask for new trials.

O’Keefe said he will postpone drug cases involved.

“Until I have a full picture of the scope of it, I’m not going to suggest that some defendant go to trial,” he said.

Milton J. Valencia can be reached at MValencia. Follow him on Twitter @MiltonValencia
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