Disgraced former state chemist Annie Dookhan could spend up to five years in prison if she pleads guilty in a drug lab scandal that has prompted release of hundreds of convicts and cast a pall over the Massachusetts criminal justice system, a judge said on Wednesday.
In a two-page ruling, Suffolk Superior Court Judge Carol S. Ball wrote that she “would not exceed” a prison sentence of three to five years if Dookhan pleads guilty to 27 charges, which include evidence tampering and obstruction of justice.
Ball would also impose a two-year probationary term.
Attorney General Martha Coakley’s office, which is prosecuting Dookhan, declined to comment on Ball’s ruling. Dookhan’s lawyer, Nicolas Gordon, did not respond to inquiries.
It was not clear Wednesday if Dookhan intends to plead guilty. She is due back in court Oct. 30 for a pretrial evidentiary hearing, a Coakley spokesman said.
Ball wrote that Dookhan “presents as a tragic and broken person who has been undone by her own ambition,” but Ball also sharply condemned Dookhan’s alleged actions.
The judge said “the consequences of her behavior, which she ought to have foreseen, have been nothing short of catastrophic: Innocent persons were incarcerated, guilty persons have been released to further endanger the public, millions and millions of public dollars are being expended to deal with the chaos Ms. Dookhan created, and the integrity of the criminal justice system has been shaken to the core.”
In a legal filing last week, prosecutors requested a five-to-seven year sentence for Dookhan, whom they said deliberately tampered with evidence so that substances would test positive for drugs. Gordon argued at a hearing last week for a maximum prison term of one year.
The case against Dookhan stems from her actions at the now-closed Hinton state lab in Jamaica Plain, which the Department of Public Health ran during her career, from 2003 to 2012. State Police discovered Dookhan’s alleged wrongdoing after they took over the lab.
Boston lawyer David Meier, at the request of Governor Deval Patrick, studied Dookhan’s caseload and concluded earlier this year that her actions could have tainted more than 40,000 cases.
Since last year, the state Department of Correction has released more than 300 men and women serving sentences for drug convictions that involved Dookhan. That number does not include anyone released by a county house of correction.
A recent Globe review of court records showed more than 600 so-called Dookhan defendants have had convictions against them erased or temporarily set aside or have been released on bail pending new trials.
One Dookhan defendant, Donta Hood of Brockton, is accused of shooting and killing a man in May after being freed. Plymouth District Attorney Timothy J. Cruz’s office, which is prosecuting Hood, declined to comment on Ball’s ruling.
Ball said that sentencing guidelines call for a maximum prison term of three years for Dookhan, who has a disabled child and no prior record.
“However, given the magnitude of the harm she has done, considerations of general deterrence and, particularly, punishment dictate a significantly harsher sentence,” Ball wrote.
Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley, whose office faces the largest number of Dookhan-related cases, voiced support Wednesday for exceeding the sentencing guidelines in the event of a guilty plea.
“Putting aside the millions of dollars and countless hours that have been and will be spent correcting her actions, this defendant violated her most fundamental duties to tell the truth in the lab and on the stand,” Conley said.
“The result was a crisis that continues to affect every level of the criminal justice system. Her actions warrant a state prison term and an upward departure from the sentencing guidelines.”
Two prominent Boston defense lawyers also endorsed Ball’s ruling.
Jeffrey Denner, a defense attorney who is representing a former supervisor of Dookhan in a related civil case, credited Ball for making an appropriate decision under challenging circumstances.
“There is a significant amount of damage here, and it’s also clear to me that [Dookhan] had significant problems,” Denner said. “Under those circumstances, it’s difficult to fashion a fair sentence, and I think Judge Ball did that.”
Thomas Drechsler, a defense lawyer who has represented public employees accused of professional misconduct, said Ball’s ruling is consistent with her reputation for fairness.
“On one side, you have the defendant with no record, and on the other hand she’s done such a tremendous amount of damage to the system,” he said. “In terms of the expense and the cost to the taxpayer, if you look at it that way, obviously it’s extremely serious.
“In 35 years of practicing law, I really can’t remember a case quite like it.”