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The Boston Globe

Opinion

lawrence harmon

Black mark on the state drug lab

DISTURBING DETAILS are starting to emerge about the alleged mishandling of drug samples at the state testing laboratory in Jamaica Plain, including the combining of drug evidence from unrelated criminal cases to assure positive results. If true, it’s a terrible revelation made worse by the fact that former forensic chemist Annie Dookhan, who is the subject of a criminal probe by the attorney general and State Police, was the busiest scientist in town.

A forensic chemist might be expected to test about 2,500 samples in a given year, according to Garth Glassburg, a core member of the Scientific Working Group for the Analysis of Seized Drugs, a group of international scientists and investigators that recommends minimum standards for forensic examinations. But state officials have indicated that Dookhan handled more than 60,000 cases over the course of her 9-year career, almost three times what might be expected.

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“That’s a robust number,’’ said Glassburg, who heads the Northeastern Illinois Regional Crime Laboratory. He stressed, however, that statistics depend on context. Testing for heroin and cocaine, for example, is pretty straightforward. Anabolic drugs and those in capsule form, he said, are more labor intensive.

The potential for miscarriages of justice in these cases is enormous. Just how big won’t be known until prosecutors and defense attorneys can sort through all of Dookhan’s cases to determine if the alleged mishandling of drug samples led to wrongful convictions or incarcerations. Governor Patrick has shut down the lab. Its duties have been transferred from the Department of Public Health to the State Police. But the depth of incompetence and malfeasance at the shuttered lab is still unknown.

The Scientific Working Group provides a model code for chemists who analyze and weigh drug samples. It requires lab workers and their supervisors to act with honesty, integrity, and objectivity; work only within the bounds of their professional competence; make clear and accurate records of all examinations; recognize that their overriding duty is to criminal justice; and take appropriate action if there is a potential for a miscarriage of justice due to incompetent practice. If such standards were even known in the state drug lab, they certainly weren’t followed.

The potential for miscarriages of justice is enormous. Just how big won’t be known until officials determine if mishandled drug samples led to wrongful convictions or incarcerations.

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Mass spectrometry, infrared spectroscopy, gas chromatography, and other sophisticated techniques used by forensic chemists are useless when the practitioner lacks basic integrity. Without such integrity, the bombing of drug samples with electrons serves only to blow up the credibility of the criminal justice system and create havoc in courtrooms across the Commonwealth. That’s what is happening now.

One of the most disturbing elements of this case is the roughly eight months that passed between June 2011, when a supervisor discovered that Dookhan was likely tampering with evidence and logbooks, and the first indication to the Norfolk district attorney that his drug cases might be tainted. It took even longer for prosecutors in other counties to learn of the problem. Much of the time lag falls on the shoulders of lab directors and supervisors. One has resigned and another has been terminated. But the reputation of John Auerbach, the state commissioner of Public Health, has been badly soiled by this mess, as well. He wasn’t informed of the problem for six months, according to state officials. But he also failed to come forward quickly. It’s hard to imagine that Auerbach will continue on the job much longer. Regardless, he owes the public an explanation.

There is much speculation as to Dookhan’s motive. Her husband suggests that she is being blamed for the sins of her co-workers and supervisors. Privately, investigators say that she may have been trying to boost her ego by being seen as the lab’s most productive member. If so, that is a further condemnation of her supervisors who should have known that no chemist can conduct reliable tests at such a rate. “No one does 5,000 samples a year,’’ said Glassburg. Yet Dookhan performed 11,000 in a single year.

Testing for drugs is generally done in two stages, presumptive and confirmatory. The former is often a quick procedure that involves adding a specially-formulated reagent and observing any color change in the drug sample. Heroin, for example, will turn purple. Cocaine turns blue.

Even a presumptive review of procedures and practices at the state drug lab could have prevented this black mark on state government.

Lawrence Harmon can be reached at harmon@globe.com.

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