Massachusetts police chiefs, defense lawyers, and prosecutors are preparing for the fallout from evidence mishandling at a busy state drug laboratory, a scandal they say could put felons back on the streets, inundate courts, and damage public confidence in the justice system.
Law enforcement officials are grappling with revelations that Annie Dookhan, for nine years a chemist at a state drug lab, may have contaminated drug evidence, mixed samples from unrelated cases, and manipulated drugs to increase weight, thus stiffening defendants’ penalties.
Dookhan is believed to have handled about 60,000 samples, potentially affecting 34,000 criminal cases.
Legal specialists warn there may be more fallout to come: Immigrants convicted of drug charges may have already been deported. Property seized in drug cases may have already been sold off. And even jury selection in future drug trials could be affected.
“There are so many different avenues of collateral consequences,” said David J. Breen, a Boston University School of Law professor and former prosecutor in New York and Massachusetts.
‘I’m just in fear that the perception and integrity of law enforcement has taken a good shot.’
The head of the Chelsea Police Department, Brian Kyes, said: “As a police chief, I’m just in fear that the perception and integrity of law enforcement has taken a good shot.”
Attorney General Martha Coakley’s office is conducting a criminal investigation into the possible contamination of drug samples at the now-closed Jamaica Plain lab, which, until July, was run by the state Department of Public Health.
Prosecutors, defense lawyers, and court officials are reviewing thousands of cases that may have been affected.
In Chelsea, the scandal has sent members of the drug enforcement unit digging into old cases and records. Chelsea Police relied on the Jamaica Plain lab to test drug evidence, and Dookhan’s name appears on a lot of the test results, Kyes said. The chief estimated that hundreds of cases would be affected, and said the department will need several more weeks to complete its review.
“We’re also looking at what happened in these cases,” Kyes said. “Was an individual convicted? If they were, what were they convicted of? Was it something specific to these drugs? We’re really trying to be proactive to get an in-depth analysis of what we’re looking at.”
Defense lawyer Lefteris K. Travayiakis, of West Roxbury, said the courts will probably be inundated with motions from lawyers seeking to reopen cases or appeals for convicted clients.
“If the evidence has been tampered with — and we know some evidence has been — I would absolutely move to exclude it,” he said. “It’s going to create such a backlog in the system. It’s going to drain resources from the state. It’s really ridiculous how many cases this is going to affect.”
Even if the drug samples still exist for retesting, said Travayiakis, the defense will argue the evidence cannot be trusted.
“If there is an indication that [Dookhan] mixed and matched from different samples, how do I know my sample wasn’t affected, even if they do retest it?” he said.
All of the police departments that used the lab face the possibility that defendants convicted of serious drug offenses may be freed.
“A lot of officers, quite frankly, risk their lives doing drug work, executing search warrants and so forth,” said Deputy Chief David Lizotte of the New Bedford Police Department. “To have a good case undone because of something that happened at the lab would be unfortunate.”
New Bedford police relied heavily on the facility, he said, commonly dropping off 50 to 75 pieces of evidence every two weeks. As the investigation into the lab moves forward, New Bedford has stopped destroying drugs stored from old cases, so that the evidence would be available for new testing if the cases are reopened, he said.
Arlington Police Chief Frederick Ryan, whose department used the Jamaica Plain lab until 2009, said such a blot on any part of the criminal justice system can hurt the work of officers on the street.
“Building and maintaining community trust is the backbone of our community policing philosophy, and anything that compromises that trust is a giant step backward,” Ryan said.
He acknowledged the possibility that people in jail for dealing drugs could be freed.
“If they were convicted on evidence that’s now questionable, then we respect the Constitution,” he said. “If those convictions were based on the fruits of a poisonous tree, they should be thrown out.”
The problems at the lab could have future consequences for former drug offenders charged with new crimes, said David Rossman, director of Clinical Programs in Criminal Law at BU.
“If they have a drug conviction, having either served time or not, but then got into some other trouble, their sentence could be enhanced — sometimes by decades — because of the earlier conviction,” Rossman said. A sentence for a new firearms charge, for example, could be boosted by 15 years if the suspect was convicted earlier of a drug felony.
Records will have to be reviewed individually. “A lot of lawyers who are going to do this work were paid by the state to represent clients,” he said. “I think it’s going to cost the state a lot in lawyers’ bills trying to unravel the mess.”
And if public confidence in the state’s drug testing is shaken by the scandal, said BU Law’s Breen, prosecutors may have to question potential jurors for any biases against chemical testing in future drug cases, perhaps for years.