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Crime lab errors create overload for prosecutors

Dookhan ‘like a natural disaster’

WORCESTER — The ripple effects of a chemist’s shoddy and allegedly criminal work in a state crime lab will be felt for years, but should not surprise, said a state prosecutor.

With 38 chemists joining the state’s crime labs, it will still be years before the evidence backlog recedes, said Curtis Wood, undersecretary of forensic science and technology.

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“We expect the backlog will probably take at least two years to get down; the backlog grows every day,” Wood told members of the Joint Ways and Means Committee, gathered at Worcester State University as lawmakers formulate versions of Governor Deval Patrick’s $34.8 billion spending plan.

Exacerbating budgets are the actions of Annie Dookhan, the chemist formerly at the shuttered Hinton drug lab, whose practice of identifying drugs by sight and manipulating evidence threw prosecutors, judges, defense attorneys, and others into crisis mode.

“I’m amazed at the impact that one individual can have on our entire judicial system,” Representative Viriato deMacedo, Republican of Plymouth, told a panel of district attorneys appearing before the committee.

Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley likened Dookhan’s impact to that of a tornado or hurricane, saying, “It’s like a natural disaster hitting a community.”

Conley warned that reduced funding in prosecutors’ offices could lead to a similar outcome.

“We need to look at what happened at the Department of Public Health drug laboratory and what happened at the state medical examiner’s office before that, and what has occurred in any number of other areas in state and local government to recognize that there are predictable outcomes of government enterprises where we continuously increase demands, but resources do not keep pace,” Conley said. “The resulting failures should not surprise anyone.

“Every system has its breaking point,” he said. “The DAs do our very best never to break, because it’s victims and the public who would suffer. But when we reach a point, as I have in my office, where there are no experienced prosecutors to draw upon, to fill vacancies, that’s a warning sign.

“When we see prosecutors already struggling to keep up with hundreds of cases suddenly being saddled with so many more, that’s a warning sign. And when we are at a point where an ongoing lack of chemists is adding exponentially to the backlog of drug cases and compromising our ability to prosecute old, new, and new Dookhan-related cases alike, that’s also a warning sign, and we in government need to heed it.”

A statewide grand jury indicted Dookhan on 27 charges, mainly obstruction of justice. She has pleaded not guilty.

Another state lab in Amherst has been closed since January, when authorities suspected chemist Sonja Farak of stealing drugs from the lab. Both labs had been under the Department of Public Health, and it will be the Office of Public Safety and Security that will take up both labs’ cases.

Before the State Police labs can take the cases previously handled by the Department of Public Health, the “intake and categorization” must be changed to suit the State Police system, said Andrea Cabral, secretary of Public Safety and Security.

Underlying the budget discussions and funding requests submitted by prosecutors, sheriffs, and state officials, is Patrick’s proposed $1.9 billion revenue-raising proposal.

Cabral, the lone Cabinet member at the hearing, spoke broadly of the administration’s budget, including funding for education and transportation.

“We are investing to preserve what we have today to make sure it is fiscally sustainable tomorrow,” Cabral said. Later, Cabral told reporters the tax hikes are essential and without them, the budget picture would be “drastic.”

Senator Ben Downing, Democrat of Pittsfield, pointed out that Dookhan processed far more evidence than any of her peers and wondered about the lack of red flags triggered by the anomalous workload.

“The idea of a case number per chemist is a good one, as long as it has some built-in flexibility,” Cabral responded.

Colonel Timothy Alben, ­superintendent of the State ­Police, said that his agency’s labs were held to a “much higher standard of science” than the labs run by the Department of Public Health and that this year the state’s labs are undergoing an accreditation process.

“I’ve never been more impressed with a facility,” Cabral said of the state lab.

In response to a question about a potential oversight committee, Cabral said she is confident that would not be necessary and praised the lab employees’ “heroic work in taking the samples from Hinton and Amherst.”

Prosecutors told the lawmakers that they have had to put their most experienced attorneys in charge of handling the fallout from Dookhan’s bungling of evidence and that it is difficult to retain experienced prosecutors.

Cape and Islands District ­Attorney Michael O’Keefe asked for a 10 percent increase, $9.8 million, to be distributed among the state’s district attorneys, a 10 percent increase, $298,000,to the Massachusetts District Attorneys Association, and $1 million to fund retention payments awarded to attorneys who have worked about three to seven years with the understanding that they will stay on for a period of time.

On the current salary, which starts at $37,500, young prosecutors have difficulty financing a car purchase .

“There’s a longstanding myth that people don’t really want to make a career out of being a prosecutor,” Conley said, continuing, “Most prosecutors, if given a choice and an adequate paycheck, would stay.”

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