Trade groups representing public defenders and private attorneys across the state have been preparing guidelines for lawyers to challenge thousands of cases that have been potentially jeopardized by wrongdoing at a state drug testing lab.
The Committee for Public Counsel Services and the Massachusetts Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers have been crafting the guidelines to help lawyers file motions for reduced bail, or new trials, based on worries that a state chemist may have tainted evidence in their cases.
“We’re working to help attorneys on pending cases, as well as cases that already resulted in convictions,” said Anne Goldbach, forensic resources director for the Committee for Public Counsel Services.
The groups typically issue guidelines to aid lawyers, but the speed with which the motions related to the chemist have been completed is an indication of the concerns about the enormity of the task: There are more than 50,000 drug samples, connected to more than 34,000 cases, that must be reviewed.
The chemist, Annie Dookhan of Franklin, worked in the state Department of Public Health’s lab in Jamaica Plain from 2003 until her resignation in March. She was initially removed from her laboratory duties in June 2011, after supervisors discovered discrepancies with the logging of drug evidence that was being tested.
Dookhan was responsible for identifying drugs and weighing them.
Governor Deval Patrick ordered the laboratory closed after the State Police, which took over drug testing in Massachusetts July 1, discovered that problems at the lab were more widespread than first reported.
Officials would say only that the investigation is ongoing, and the state attorney general’s office is weighing criminal charges.
Of particular concern is the question of what the Department of Public Health knew about the situation. Commissioner John Auerbach has issued statements noting the state inquiry and saying the department is conducting its own review. He called the allegations troubling, but has not answered questions about them.
County prosecutors who used the lab, as well as defense lawyers, have been scrambling to identify cases the chemist may have been involved in.
The Massachusetts District Attorneys Association sent a letter to the governor on Thursday asking for more information, saying the integrity of the judicial system is at stake.
“We’re looking to create a dialogue, addressing our concerns,” said Worcester District Attorney Joseph D. Early Jr., the head of the association.
District attorneys and defense lawyers say the review of samples is likely to be a costly, lengthy process that could lead to thousands of appeals and requests for new trials.
Already, a defendant in a Bristol County drug case has appealed his conviction based, in part, on the fact that Dookhan testified in her role as a chemist after she had been removed from lab duties.
His lawyer had not known about the Department of Public Health investigation, and neither had prosecutors.
“The first course of action would have been a motion for a new trial,” said the defendant’s lawyer at the time, James Powderly. “When a defendant’s on trial, and his liberty’s in jeopardy, he has the right to confront that person and inquire.”