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editorial

State must quickly identify tainted drug-lab evidence

The resignation of John Auerbach, the state’s top public health official, offers a measure of accountability for the fiasco at the state drug testing lab. But it comes as cold comfort for any defendant imprisoned, held on high bail, deported, stripped of child custody, or tossed out of public housing based on potentially tainted evidence.

Former forensic chemist Annie Dookhan, the subject of a criminal probe, tested roughly 60,000 samples in 34,000 criminal drug cases before her resignation in March. Investigators say she willfully ignored her duties, even mixing samples to ensure positive results. Prosecutors and defense attorneys are trying to determine the exact extent of the damage. One miscarriage of justice would be too many. But the number could reach into the hundreds.

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The first order of business is to get a so-called boiler room up and running where staffers can identify and prioritize so-called “Dookhan cases.’’ On Thursday, Governor Patrick named David Meier, a highly respected former prosecutor and current defense specialist to head that operation. Painstaking efforts must be made to match defendants’ names with court docket numbers and Department of Correction databases. Defense attorneys will be working overtime — as they should — to vacate convictions, release clients, file motions for new trials, and stay sentences. Some guilty people will almost certainly go free. But the integrity of the criminal justice system requires nothing less in cases where evidence has been tainted by the state. And to their credit, the governor, State Police, and district attorneys have reinforced that view in public statements.

The problem could go deeper than Dookhan, who tested almost three times the number of samples expected of a careful, competent chemist over the course of an average year. But the second-most “productive’’ member of the now-shuttered lab also conducted an unusually high number of tests. The boiler room may need to stay in operation for quite some time, requiring ample funding from the Legislature.

Once the criminal cases have been sorted out, an independent commission should examine the roots of this breakdown. The push by police and prosecutors to make drug cases in a time of budget cuts resulted in a lab flooded with drug samples and too few chemists to handle the volume. Still, supervisors failed to monitor their work. And Auerbach, the public health commissioner, knew about general problems at the lab even if he was kept in the dark for several months about Dookhan’s alleged misdeeds.

The lab itself was poorly situated in a department better equipped to handle disease prevention, epidemiological studies, emergency preparedness, vital statistics, and other typical public health duties. The State Police drug lab, which is a much better fit, has taken over the testing responsibilities.

It will take time to sort out the entire mess. But the identification of wrongful convictions can’t wait another minute.

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