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Drug mishandling may have tainted 40,000 cases

The criminal cases of more than 40,000 people in Massachusetts may have been tainted by chemist Annie Dookhan and management failures at the now-closed state Department of Public Health lab where she worked, according to a long-awaited report released Tuesday by a special counsel hired by the Patrick administration.

That final tally, painstakingly compiled by Boston defense attorney David Meier since the scandal broke a year ago, includes 2,769 more people than he had previously estimated, bringing to 40,323 the total number of people potentially affected by Dookhan’s alleged mishandling of drug evidence.

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Most of those cases involved minor charges, including possession of small amounts of drugs, Meier said at a State House press conference presenting his findings.

“My hope is that as a result of these efforts, each and every individual who was potentially affected . . . will have an opportunity to have his or her case reviewed by prosecutors, defense attorneys, and judges and that the system will have the opportunity to get it right,” Meier said.

The report was immediately criticized by the state’s public defender agency and the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, who said the administration’s final tally does not fully capture the damage done to individual defendants.

State administration officials said Tuesday that some of the thousands of cases tied to Annie Dookhan were resolved without convictions.

STEVEN SENNE/POOL/FILE 2012

State administration officials said Tuesday that some of the thousands of cases tied to Annie Dookhan were resolved without convictions.

“The whole thing is disturbing,’’ said Anthony Benedetti, chief counsel for the Committee for Public Counsel Services, which had previously argued that all 190,000 cases sent through the Department of Public Health lab since the early 1990s are now suspect and should be dismissed. “I think every one of the 40,000 cases she touched should be thrown out. Whether it was possession or distribution [of illegal drugs], the conviction is tainted because of the conduct of Annie Dookhan.’’

Matthew Segal, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, said the state’s criminal justice system must do more to help those whose civil rights may have been violated by Dookhan and her superiors.

“David Meier’s announcement today confirms that we are no closer to solving this problem,’’ Segal said. “There are 40,000 people whose convictions have been potentially tainted, and the vast majority of them haven’t had a day in court. Merely identifying them isn’t justice.’’

Administration officials noted Tuesday that some of the thousands of cases — they did not know how many — were resolved without convictions, either through dismissal or some type of plea bargain. About one-quarter of the cases — considered high priority because they involved someone still in prison, on parole, or awaiting trial, among other reasons — have been referred to prosecutors and defense attorneys.

When Meier began his review last year, he said at least 2,000 people were incarcerated based, in part, on Dookhan’s role as the chemist who tested drug evidence and confirmed it was an illicit substance or served as the secondary, confirmatory chemist.

Since last year, the Department of Correction has released 337 men and women serving prison sentences for drug prosecutions involving Dookhan, an administration official said. The figure does not include anyone released by a county house of correction.

The Massachusetts Bar Association criticized the administration’s management of the now-closed Hinton lab and warned the fallout from the scandal will last for years.

“The depth of the crisis is unfathomable and reveals what can only be described as an unconscionable level of gross negligence at the state drug lab,” said Martin W. Healy, chief legal counsel for the bar association.

“The crisis will continue to negatively impact the state’s budget and reverberate throughout the Commonwealth’s judicial system for years to come.”

Meier was hired by the Patrick administration last fall to identify individuals whose cases involved drug evidence that may have been affected in some way by Dookhan at the Jamaica Plain lab where she worked from 2003 to 2012.

How to correct any errors in prosecutions linked to Dookhan is an issue that district attorneys, mostly in Eastern Massachusetts, have been wrestling with since then, along with defense attorneys and the state’s court system.

Patrick said Tuesday that the list of potentially tainted cases would be provided to the criminal justice community.

“Now, with this detailed information, the many participants in the criminal justice system can do the work of getting each individual case right,” he said in a statement.

The names of the 40,323 people are now stored in a computer database, and Meier said his priority now is “to get the information into the hands of appropriate people, so that fundamental fairness and justice can be done.’’

He is planning to meet with prosecutors, police, the defense bar, and the judiciary to share the data.

In addition to unraveling hundreds of drug convictions, the scandal has cost the state millions of dollars for expenses accrued by individual prosecutors’ offices, several state agencies, and the judiciary as they searched for ways to ensure that no one was wrongly convicted.

The state’s office of the inspector general is conducting its own investigation into the scandal, while Attorney General Martha Coakley is prosecuting Dookhan for tampering with evidence, allegations to which Dookhan has pleaded not guilty.

For fiscal 2013, lawmakers set aside $30 million for Dookhan-related costs. The administration set up a procedure that required government agencies and counties to apply for funding to the state Department of Administration and Finance.

The administration said it has approved $10.4 million in requests, of which $7.6 million has been spent.

Administration officials said they now expect additional requests for state aid, given the additional names identified in the report.

Separately, the state has agreed to pay $12,500 a month to Meier’s Boston-based law firm, Todd & Weld, dating back to October, Meier said.

David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @davabel.
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