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editorial

State makes progress on legal mess from drug lab

Just a few months ago, faith in the Massachusetts criminal justice system was at an all-time low. At a state lab in Jamaica Plain, the alleged misconduct of an unprincipled chemist, coupled with managerial ineptitude, had led to the possible tainting of an estimated 60,000 drug samples. Simply identifying all the cases that might have hinged on now-dubious drug tests — never mind resolving those cases — seemed beyond the ability of state officials. Yet there is strong evidence already that the criminal justice system is working effectively to redeem its reputation and rectify injustices.

This week, the attorney in charge of sorting out the mess for the Patrick administration reported finishing the first phase of the investigation after just six weeks on the job. David Meier, a respected former prosecutor, said that he and his staff of about a dozen have identified 10,000 individuals who were prosecuted based on evidence supplied by disgraced chemist Annie Dookhan. That number is sure to climb. But Meier said that his first duty was to tackle high-priority cases, including about 2,000 individuals who were imprisoned or held on bail based on questionable evidence. Judges already have released scores of individuals.

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Meier isn’t pretending that the task ahead will be easy. So far, his analysis has relied mainly on reviews of several law enforcement, court, and public health databases. But he found too many inconsistencies, including misspellings of suspects’ names, to rely solely on electronic searches. Therefore, he has sought and received Governor Patrick’s permission to conduct a file-by-file review of lab documentation to ensure that every case touched by Dookhan is identified. Meier hopes to complete the task in about three months.

Identifying all compromised cases is only the first step; the next step, deciding how to resolve them, is up to the court system. In some cases, sentence reductions, new trials, or even the outright dismissal of charges may be in order. Public defenders are tossing around a huge figure — $332 million — that might be needed to represent those who are faced with criminal penalties or civil sanctions related to the lab’s work. They are getting way ahead of themselves. But the state does need to look for ways to reduce costs, such as dismissing the cases of drug suspects who were not charged with violent crimes or weapons crimes.

For now, though, the focus must remain on identifying anyone who was wronged by Dookhan. Fortunately, that focus has so far been relentless.

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