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Lab scandal makes way into federal court system

New chapter in Dookhan case

The Annie Dookhan case has already been a nightmare at the state level.

Jessica Rinaldi/Reuters

The Annie Dookhan case has already been a nightmare at the state level.

Adam Davila was classified as a career criminal, a repeat drug dealer prosecuted in the exacting federal court system and convicted of dealing heroin. Just over a year ago, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

It could have been worse: Prosecutors initially asked that Davila serve 12 years, citing his 30 years of crimes, including manslaughter as a juvenile, and assault and battery on a police officer.

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“The defendant was the driving force behind a robust heroin distribution operation,” prosecutors said in court records.

Come Tuesday, however, the 47-year-old Davila of Dorchester could be released back to Boston’s streets, the latest legal dilemma out of the state crime lab scandal involving the alleged rogue chemist Annie Dookhan.

In a telling sign that the Dookhan controversy has made its way into the US court system in Boston, Davila has asked that a federal judge scale back his sentence, based on the chemist’s involvement in one of his previous state convictions. The 2008 state court conviction of drug dealing was factored into his classification as a “career criminal” in federal court and was used to triple his sentence, from roughly three years to 10.

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But based on Dookhan’s alleged involvement, Davila had the conviction retroactively dismissed in state court, and he has asked that he be resentenced for the federal court conviction to time served, which would allow for his immediate release from prison.

“He should face a maximum of 33 months, and he has already done more than 33 months,” said Davila’s lawyer, George F. Gormley of South Boston. “This is a case where this fellow’s sentence was dramatically increased . . . based on evidence in which Ms. Dookhan was involved.”

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The Suffolk district attorney’s office has appealed the dismissal of Davila’s state case to the Supreme Judicial Court, but Gormley argued that in federal court “this unravels his career offender status.”

“And if that changes, you ought to be entitled to be resentenced,” Gormley said. “There are a good number of people who are similarly situated, and this case brings it all into perspective.”

The Dookhan crime lab controversy, in which the chemist is accused of submitting false drug tests and failing to follow protocol, has already been a nightmare for the criminal justice system at the state level. Since the scandal was exposed in August 2012, investigators have identified more than 40,000 defendants whose cases could be affected, and already 337 men and women serving prison sentences have been released from the state prison system. That is not including those released from county jails.

So far, relatively few petitions (roughly 90) have been filed in the federal court system, because federal investigators typically use their own crime lab when directly arresting defendants.

But under the federal court system, prosecutors have the ability to cite a defendant’s history of crime in calculating what the sentence should be. And anyone with a total of three drug or violent crime convictions, at the state or federal level, could be classified as a “career criminal,” a designation that could significantly increase, in some cases triple, their federal sentence.

Now, legal analysts say that, as defense lawyers successfully seek to have sentences vacated in state court, the legal response to the crime lab controversy is making its way into the federal court system as the lawyers challenge lengthy sentences that were based on a previous Dookhan-related state conviction.

“The federal court will have to hear challenges for defendants who want to be resentenced, because if they hadn’t had that prior state conviction, the sentences would have been lower, in some cases significantly lower,” said Miriam Conrad, head of the federal public defender office in Boston.

“State sentences can have a huge impact on a federal sentence imposed years later,” she added.

The impact of the Dookhan case is not limited to Massachusetts.

Last month, a drug defendant in federal court in New Hampshire who initially faced 20 years in prison after he was classified as a career criminal was instead sentenced to three years, after a Dookhan-related conviction was thrown out in Massachusetts.

Conrad and Gormley and others argued that the Dookhan scandal shows how relatively minor drug cases are wasting federal resources.

Gormley said the use of a defendant’s history of convictions to classify him as career criminal to enhance a sentence is a draconian system, one that can be flawed by a rogue chemist’s work.

“Someone who is convicted of selling $50 worth of crack does not deserve to spend decades in prison for that crime, no matter how serious his or her past record,” Conrad said.

But legal analysts who support the system say it is a critical strategy to target those who deal drugs in city neighborhoods.

“These are people tied into major drug investigations,” said Michael Sullivan, a lawyer with the Ashcroft Group law firm and a former US attorney in Boston, who said the involvement of federal agencies such as the Drug Enforcement Administration and the FBI has helped crack down on drug-related violence in urban neighborhoods.

“These are identified as the worst of the worst, the most dangerous, most violent offenders in these neighborhoods,” he said. “They’re compelling targets that end up getting substantial sentences because of criminal histories.”

Sullivan added that, because of the Dookhan scandal, “some pretty bad people will be released, or released much earlier than people are prepared to take them back.”

In Davila’s case, he was only accused in his federal indictment of selling nine grams of heroin during several sting operations. But in asking for a hefty sentence, federal prosecutors cited his history and called him a “career offender in the ordinary, everyday meaning of the phrase.”

Gormley is set to argue Tuesday that Dookhan’s involvement in the case changes that.

“He should be looked at as an individual who broke the law on a particular date, not as someone who regularly breaks the law,” he said.

Milton J. Valencia can be reached at milton.valencia@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @miltonvalencia.
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