More than 1,100 inmates in Massachusetts prisons and county jails were convicted based on potentially tainted evidence from the state drug lab, officials disclosed Monday, providing the most troubling estimate yet of the damage from the growing scandal.
David E. Meier, a former veteran prosecutor appointed by the Patrick administration to lead the review of potentially thousands of mishandled cases, said staffers worked over the weekend to identify 690 people now in state prison and 450 in county jails or houses of correction because of evidence that was analyzed by a former state chemist identified as Annie Dookhan, when she served as the primary or secondary chemist in all of those people’s cases.
“We are taking it one step at a time,” said Meier during a late-afternoon news conference at a state office building in Boston. He said the numbers investigators have uncovered so far are not “100 percent accurate,” but are “the best . . . we can generate as a result of various data, personal identifiers, and other information coming from various federal, state and local agencies.”
Meier said his team’s first priority is identifying people who may have been wrongly imprisoned because of evidence mishandled by Dookhan. So far, judges have freed or reduced bail of at least 16 drug defendants because of connections to the chemist.
The list of people imprisoned based on evidence handled by Dookhan is likely to grow considerably. Meier said the 1,140 identified so far do not include prisoners held on bail, people serving sentences in federal prison, and those incarcerated on additional drug charges that Dookhan did not handle.
In all, Dookhan is believed to have handled 60,000 drug samples involving 34,000 criminal cases during her nine-year career at the lab in Jamaica Plain — formerly run by the Department of Public Health — until she left in March amid allegations that she had mishandled evidence and altered test results. State officials closed the lab in August as the extent of her alleged wrongdoing became clear.
Meanwhile, the fallout from the scandal continued Monday as a Suffolk Superior Court judge put on hold a seven-year prison sentence for David Huffman of Roxbury, setting the stage for his release one month after he pleaded guilty to drug and gun charges.
Huffman, 55, who has a 19-page record dating to 1975, was convicted in Suffolk Superior Court in August of trafficking in cocaine and heroin, unlawful possession of a firearm, and other charges and was sentenced to seven to 10 years.
Superior Court Judge Christine Roach, adopting a request by defense attorney Bernard Grossberg, stayed Huffman’s sentence. The judge also set bail at $75,000 cash, which means Huffman will regain his freedom if he posts bail, though he remains convicted of the drug and gun charges.
Those convictions, however, may ultimately be tossed out, depending on the results of the investigation into Dookhan’s activities at the lab.
Grossberg said in court that Dookhan signed or cosigned 14 tests done on the 300 grams of cocaine seized when police raided a Boston building.
He also said a .357-caliber handgun found by police during their search was never directly connected to Huffman, but Huffman had pleaded guilty to gun charges to reach a resolution in the case.
“The drug charges forced the guilty plea in this case,” Grossberg said. The gun plea “was thrown in as part of a global plea.’’
The suspension of Huffman’s sentence, over the objection of prosecutors, alarmed Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley, who warned that Huffman’s potential release could present a real danger to the community.
“This defendant isn’t a low-level or nonviolent drug offender,” said Conley in a statement. “The defendants who stand to benefit most from the DPH lab crisis are violent offenders, career criminals, gun offenders, or major narcotics suppliers — and he’s all four. We’re extremely concerned about this defendant and many others like him hitting the streets in the weeks and months to come.”
In fact, a judge at Plymouth Superior Court in Brockton is scheduled to hear an appeal for freedom from another inmate on Tuesday. Defense attorney Michael Traft plans to ask Superior Court Judge Frank Gaziano to release his client because the drug evidence in his case — analyzed by Dookhan — appears to have been altered.
In court papers, Traft said the weight of the powder cocaine authorities allegedly linked to his client, Manuel J. Abreu, had actually increased during the years it was in government custody.
When Abreu was arrested by Brockton police in 2005, they allegedly found 182 grams of powder cocaine; when it was retested following the Dookhan scandal, the cocaine had increased in weight to 206.25 grams, according to Traft.
Police also allegedly seized crack cocaine with a net weight of 304 grams when tested in the lab in 2005, but now weighs 289 grams, a shrinkage that the state has said results from moisture evaporating out of the crack cocaine.
But Traft contends that the allegations about Dookhan manipulating drug samples, and the fact that she is shown on government records as having had accecss to the drugs, warrants Abreu being freed from state prison on bail pending his appeal.
Gaziano sentenced Abreu to 17.5 years in state prison earlier this year for drug sales in a school zone and drug trafficking, which carries a mandatory minimum of 15 years behind bars.
Meier, who is heading up the Patrick administration’s review of the lab scandal, said his team has an enormous amount of work ahead.
“There is a second level of individual who we will next turn our attention to,” said Meier, as they attempt to identify every person who has been jailed or otherwise punished based on evidence connected to Dookhan. He said analysts need next to identify people “who might have previously been convicted, previously been on probation, previously served a sentence or ortherwise been punished as a result of a drug case which potentially may have been affected by the conduct of that same chemist.”
Of the first 1,140 inmates identified Monday, Meier said some are facing additional jeopardy: 22 of them may be the subject of ongoing deportation or related immigration proceedings, according to a letter Meier sent to district attorneys and defense lawyers.
“We are doing our human best” to expedite the process, Meier said.Kay Lazar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. John Ellement can be reached at email@example.com.