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State fires chemist after probe casts doubt on credentials

The drug analyst who was fired for misstating her credentials allegedly falsely testified in federal court as recently as August that she has a degree in chemistry and possibly did so in dozens of state court cases as well, opening the door for a flood of new legal challenges related to the Hinton drug lab scandal.

The analyst, Kate Corbett, was fired by the State Police Friday for allegedly asserting that she holds a degree in chemistry from Merrimack College, though investigators determined that her degree is in sociology.

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Corbett has not been accused of tampering with evidence, a charge that led to the conviction of Annie Dookhan, the woman at the center of the lab scandal.

But Corbett’s declarations in court that she is an expert with a chemistry degree could potentially derail convictions in those cases, say legal analysts, who say her testimony would be tainted.

Dookhan, 36, was sentenced to 3 to 5 years in prison Friday after being convicted of, among other charges, lying about her resume in court.

“It gives her [Corbett] a lot of credibility she is not entitled to,” said Stephen Weymouth, a veteran Boston defense attorney, who was speaking generally and does not have any cases related to the analyst.

He said any false statements are compounded by Corbett’s connection to the now-closed Hinton laboratory in Jamaica Plain, which was run by the state Department of Public Health and has come under scrutiny for failing to follow basic standards.

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“That would give me concerns,” Weymouth said, adding, “I think that defendants who were convicted have nothing to lose by filing a motion for a new trial, by saying this is newly discovered evidence that taints the trial and prejudices the jury against the defendant.”

Weymouth and other defense attorneys have already argued that state officials should investigate all of the work by chemists at the Hinton lab, totaling about 190,000 cases, beyond the investigation into Dookhan’s work. They are anticipating the state inspector general’s audit of the laboratory, which is slated to be released in January.

“What this underscores is the critical importance of a thorough and complete investigation of the [Hinton] lab,” said J. Martin Richey of the federal public defender’s office in Boston, who handled at least one case Corbett testified in. “The system is clogged, and a lot of people are awaiting the results of this investigation, to see what claims they have, and it bears scrutiny.”

Joe Dorant, president of the Massachusetts Organization of State Engineers & Scientists, said in an interview Monday that Corbett is challenging her firing and maintains that she has proper credentials.

“She is a highly competent chemist that has given seven good years of her life to public service in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and anyone that knows her will tell you that,” he said.

Corbett began working as a chemist at the Hinton laboratory in 2005. She and other analysts were placed on paid leave last year, once the investigation into Dookhan began and the lab was closed.

The State Police, which took over the lab’s responsibilities, moved to transfer the chemists to its jurisdiction over recent months.

However, State Police conducted background checks on the chemists’ education to ensure that the analysts met the agency’s standards for accreditation, and superiors learned of the discrepancies with Corbett’s education.

According to a State Police report obtained by the Globe, Corbett earned a bachelor of arts degree in sociology from Merrimack College in 2001, though she claimed on her resume that she obtained a degree in chemistry in 2003.

A State Police investigation concluded that, in the two years after she first earned the sociology degree, she took enough credits that she believed would satisfy a chemistry degree. However, according to the State Police report, Corbett assumed she had earned a second degree without confirming it with Merrimack College.

Also, according to the report, she would not have qualified for a second degree because she would have had to take an additional set of coursework to meet bachelor of science requirements.

Essex District Attorney Jonathan W. Blodgett, who also serves as president of the Massachusetts District Attorneys Association, said that he and other district attorneys learned about the concerns over Corbett last week and that they are now doing a review of each of her cases, similar to what was done with Dookhan’s work.

“We are going through all our cases . . . to see if what, if any, involvement she had in our cases,” Blodgett said.

He said there is no evidence at this time that Corbett tampered with evidence, but said, “At this point, the concern that has been raised is the educational qualifications of Kate Corbett.”

Milton J. Valencia can be reached at mvalencia@
globe.com
. Follow him on Twitter @miltonvalencia. John R. Ellement can be reached at john.ellement@globe.com.

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