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editorial

Impairment at the health dept.

Revelations about the failures at the state drug-testing laboratory and its parent agency — the state Department of Public Health — are growing along with the number of criminal cases that may be affected. Right now, district attorneys across the state can only guess as to how many of their cases might have been tainted by forensic lab chemist Annie Dookhan, who is the subject of a criminal investigation. But they learned this week that she handled about 50,000 drug samples in 34,000 cases since 2003.

Lab officials displayed a stunning lack of judgment dating back to June 2011, when they discovered that Dookhan was mishandling lab samples. Though they stripped her of testing duties, they reportedly failed to inform their bosses at the state Department of Public Health until six months later. Then department officials exacerbated the problem by sitting on the information for a few more months before communicating with prosecutors. The full extent of this problem might easily have been covered up if not for the State Police, which took over the lab in July as required by the fiscal year 2013 budget.

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The drug lab in Jamaica Plain has been shut down, and its responsibilities transferred to a State Police facility. Dookhan has resigned, and her supervisors have been placed on leave. But that doesn’t begin to address the concerns over this mess.

First and most importantly, officials must confront the tortuous but essential process of matching Dookhan’s samples with specific drug cases to determine if anyone has been convicted or imprisoned unjustly due to flawed or phony lab work. Second, investigators from the State Police and Attorney General’s office must establish precise timelines in this case to determine if a coverup occured in either the state lab, the Department of Public Health, or both. And the public deserves to know exactly what Dookhan is accused of doing. Right now, it’s not even clear if investigators believe the samples she handled became tainted through incompetence, malice, or some other motive.

This case need not undermine confidence in state law enforcement agencies. The district attorneys are outraged and appear fully committed to examining each case for irregularities. The State Police have earned some credibility by exposing the extent of the problem. But the same can’t be said for the state Department of Public Health. Any review or investigation emanating from that agency will need to be scrutinized under a microscope by outside investigators.

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