In what may signal a wave of such actions, a judge ordered the release from prison Wednesday of a convicted drug dealer 2½ years early because evidence in his case was handled at a troubled state crime laboratory.
Superior Court Judge Paul Troy vacated the conviction of David Danielli after learning that 500 suspected oxycodone pills Danielli allegedly possessed were tested by Annie Dookhan, a chemist at the state lab in Jamaica Plain. Dookhan’s alleged mishandling of drug evidence may have jeopardized thousands of cases, officials said.
Danielli’s attorney, John T. Martin, said that Troy “made the decision many future judges are going to make on many future cases.”
Norfolk District Attorney Michael Morrissey’s office supported Danielli’s bid for release.
“The Danielli matter is not the end of the fallout from the problems at the [Department of Public Health] drug lab,” Morrissey’s office said. “The Constitution demanded that we join defense counsel in seeking this defendant’s release while we reassess and reexamine the evidence and the case against him.”
Martin said the judge concluded that the tainted evidence undermined Danielli’s guilty plea and that Danielli should be returned to the legal status of someone accused of a crime, not convicted.
“The case is not over; it’s like a reset,” Martin said. “The case is now back to exactly where he had been, had he never been in jail.” But, the attorney added, the seized pills are now so tainted that Danielli’s freedom may become permanent.
Prosecutors had earlier asked judges to free pretrial detainees on personal recognizance if Dookhan handled evidence in their cases. Danielli appears to be among the first convicts serving a prison sentence to be freed amid the unfolding scandal.
Court records show that Quincy police arrested Danielli March 26, 2011, after observing what they suspected was a drug deal. Danielli was pulled over on Quincy Shore Drive and, according to records, possessed 585 oxycodone pills — 500 stashed inside a fake aerosol can — along with $3,917 in cash.
The pills tested positive as oxycodone in the field, and prosecutors later submitted them to Dookhan for analysis. She reported the pills weighed 71 grams, which allowed prosecutors to charge Danielli with trafficking drugs over 28 grams, a major felony.
Combined with charges of selling drugs in a school zone, Danielli faced at least 10 years in state prison if convicted. After Morrissey’s office learned in February that Dookhan had violated testing protocols, prosecutors tested the drugs again and once more confirmed they were oxycodone.
Reacting to what was then considered Dookhan’s benign mistakes, Morrissey’s office agreed to a deal that allowed Danielli to plead guilty to reduced charges of drug possession with intent to distribute.
His plea was delivered June 11 in Norfolk Superior Court in Dedham, the same place where he is expected to regain his freedom Thursday.
Earlier Wednesday, John Auerbach, who had announced his resignation as Massachusetts’ public health chief amid the lab scandal, said he was “furious” about what happened at the Jamaica Plain facility and the effect it may have on thousands of criminal cases.
Auerbach said he felt “complete anger that the actions of a single person caused so much damage, so much damage and harm.”
Speaking to reporters, Auerbach said he accepted “no responsibility for the actions of a rogue chemist.” But because the improprieties suggested broader quality control issues, he added, he bears ultimate blame for what happened at the lab.
He said he decided to offer his resignation to Governor Deval Patrick “almost immediately” after learning from State Police that problems at the lab probably extended beyond what investigators initially believed to be an isolated event involving about 90 cases.
Auerbach made his comments before Wednesday’s monthly meeting of the state Public Health Council, an appointed panel of doctors, consumer advocates, and professors.
Dookhan, who worked at the lab for nine years before resigning in March, allegedly mishandled drug evidence in criminal cases by altering the weight of drugs, not calibrating machines correctly, and manipulating samples to test as drugs when they were not.
She may have handled as many as 60,000 drug samples, in 34,000 cases, and some or all of the evidence may be tainted, State Police have told prosecutors.
The Globe has reported that internal e-mails from chemists and supervisors at the lab described a staff drowning in work, instances of misplaced evidence, and mounting frustration about the Patrick administration’s seeming indifference.
Auerbach rejected the notion, when asked by reporters, that budget cutbacks played a role in Dookhan’s alleged wrongdoing.
“Everybody had to tighten their belt, and budgets were reduced across the country,” Auerbach said. “But reductions of budgets should never be an excuse for the lack of proper oversight and quality control management in critical operations like the forensic drug lab.”
The Massachusetts Organization of State Engineers & Scientists, the union that represents chemists at the now closed lab, said that lack of staffing and funding at the lab were well known by state officials since at least 2006 and that resource limitations contributed to the latest problem.
“This is not an excuse relating to the very serious current breakdown in procedure,” union president Joe Dorant said. “It is, however, a longtime symptom of a system that has clearly lost its way.”
Auerbach said he was first told in December of a potential problem, six months after lab supervisors detected unusual entries in records. He said he was told it involved one incident. Auerbach’s office then assigned a lawyer to investigate.
“In terms of the entire interactions with supervisors and managers of the forensic drug laboratory, we were told that there were no other suspicious incidents and no other reason to believe there were widespread problems,” he said.
It was not until State Police were preparing to assume control of the lab in July, under a previously approved budget process, that officials were notified the problems may have been more widespread, he said.
Auerbach, public health commissioner for 5½ years, has been a popular fixture in health agencies for more than two decades. He is expected to stay in his post a few more weeks until a replacement is named.
He has accepted a post as director of Northeastern University’s Institute on Urban Health Research; he will also be a professor there. Patrick administration spokesman Alec Loftus said Auerbach had been in “preliminary talks” with Northeastern for “a couple of months.”
Kay Lazar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.