Standing in the administrative offices of the South Middlesex Correctional Center in Framingham, Mylazia Johnson was handed a letter from her attorney. At first, she didn’t quite understand the import of the news it contained: She had a court date Sept. 28. And she could be released.
“I read it again, and I was thinking it can’t be true,” said Johnson, of Roxbury, who was halfway through her 3½-year drug sentence. The attorney explained during a telephone call: Annie Dookhan, the former state chemist at the epicenter of a spiraling drug lab scandal, had been involved in testing the drugs in Johnson’s case.
On Friday, Superior Court Judge Thomas A. Connors halted Johnson’s sentence and released her on personal recognizance. She is one of more than 20 people freed in recent weeks following allegations that Dookhan did not properly test drug samples, forged colleagues’ signatures on reports, and removed evidence from the evidence room of the Jamaica Plain lab without signing it out.
“I had been watching the news and I knew what was going on, but I didn’t think it had anything to do with me and my case,” the 31-year-old Johnson said. “I knew I couldn’t be that lucky. I pray to God every night, but really . . . ”
Johnson was arrested with six other people Nov. 28, 2009, during “Operation Common Cure,” a Boston police drug sweep through the Boston Common and Theatre District. During an interview Wednesday in Mattapan Square, Johnson proclaimed her innocence.
According to court records, she has a history of drug convictions. She was found guilty in 2002 and 2003 of possession of drugs with intent to distribute and was placed on probation.
Now, Johnson said that she is looking to the future, that her sudden and unexpected release from prison has renewed her focus on carving out a better life for herself and her daughter, who was just 2 months old when Johnson started serving her sentence on Feb. 10, 2011.
Johnson will have to return to court in January to determine the ultimate fate of her case, with the possibility that her conviction may be vacated.
Hundreds of other inmates jailed on drug convictions may soon be released because of the alleged mishandling by Dookhan, who, according to state reports, processed far more drug samples than any other chemist at the lab, run at the time by the state Department of Public Health. State Police have said that Dookhan, a 34-year-old mother of a young son, tested 60,000 drug samples in 34,000 criminal cases.
She was charged Friday — the same day Johnson was released — with two counts of falsifying drug reports and lying about her professional credentials. Dookhan faces up to 20 years in prison on those charges. She was released on $10,000 cash bail.
The scandal, originally believed to be limited to Eastern Massachusetts, now has statewide reach, with all Massachusetts district attorneys being provided with a list of defendants whose cases may have been affected by Dookhan’s alleged altering of drug tests.
Dookhan started working at the lab in November 2003, resigning in March as the scandal burgeoned.
As many as 1,141 people are serving drug-related sentences in state prisons and county jails in cases in which Dookhan was involved in drug testing, authorities said.
Attorney Kathleen S. Lucey has represented two of those people, Johnson and Joshua P. Fernandes, who was freed last week in Plymouth Superior Court after serving about half of his sentence for cocaine trafficking and drug possession. Fernandes was convicted in March 2011.
“Ms. Johnson was dealt a much tougher hand than most of us, but she never, ever gave up on herself, and she’s already doing good things and moving forward despite what very ‘productive’ lab people have done to set her back,” Lucey said.
Johnson said her father died when she was 9 years old, and that her mother was in and out of prison on violent crime convictions. Johnson shuttled among 27 foster homes. When she was 16, she attended a prep school in Merrimac that she described as “really an orphanage.”
Johnson said that she was shot twice in 2004 outside a Fall River nightclub as she sat in a car with five other people. Her left arm was partially paralyzed. The arm has recovered, she said, although, at times, her hand loses its grip.
Johnson said she took several college and computer courses while in prison, and vows to get a four-year college degree.
“When I walked out last week, I was shaking,” Johnson said.
“I didn’t know if they were coming back around the corner to get me. And then, all I wanted to do was see my daughter. She gave me hugs and kisses. Everything I do now is for her.”