fb-pixel Skip to main content

Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins looking into third chemist at state drug lab

Investigators are looking into longtime state chemist Della Saunders, who analyzed tens of thousands of drug samples while working alongside disgraced chemist Annie Dookhan for about a decade

Della Saunders, a Chemist who worked with Annie Dookhan, testified at Shawn Drumgold bench trial in 2012.
Della Saunders, a Chemist who worked with Annie Dookhan, testified at Shawn Drumgold bench trial in 2012.The Boston Globe/Boston Globe

Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins’s office is examining the work of another chemist at a troubled state lab, raising the specter of additional misconduct that potentially widens what is already the largest crime lab scandal in US history.

In a filing submitted Monday in a pending Suffolk Superior Court drug case, Rollins’s office cast doubt on a 2014 state inspector general probe into the William A. Hinton state lab — a $6.2 million investigation that spanned 15 months — and questioned whether investigators dug deep enough.

The filing cited longtime state chemist Della Saunders, who analyzed tens of thousands of drug samples while working alongside disgraced chemist Annie Dookhan for about a decade. The renewed focus appears to be Saunders’ work from 2004 to 2012.

Advertisement



Prosecutors are now reviewing more than 4,000 pages of recently released inspector general files “to confirm that the investigation appropriately examined the conduct of Saunders and that Dookhan was indeed the Lab’s sole bad actor,” Donna Patalano, general counsel for Rollins’s office, wrote in the filing.

Prosecutors will also seek to determine “whether agencies of the Commonwealth met their duty to investigate certain lab chemists, specifically Della Saunders.”

Reverberations of the decades-long drug lab scandal, which brought national embarrassment to the state, are still felt today. To date, it has resulted in the dismissal of more than 35,000 drug convictions, as well as the prosecution of two former state chemists, Dookhan and Sonja Farak. Their misconduct has cost the state more than $30 million, Rollins’s office noted in the filing, with state payouts to those wrongfully convicted expected to reach $10 million.

The William A. Hinton State Laboratory Institute, which houses the Massachusetts state drug lab, in Jamaica Plain.
The William A. Hinton State Laboratory Institute, which houses the Massachusetts state drug lab, in Jamaica Plain.Steven Senne/Associated Press/file 2012

Now, it’s possible those reverberations could go ever further.

“The question is whether they have gotten to the bottom of everything,” said Matthew Segal, the legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts. “It sure looks like they haven’t.”

Advertisement



Segal said he is encouraged by the renewed scrutiny of the drug lab by prosecutors.

“People have lost their jobs, their housing, their freedom” as a result of drug lab misconduct, Segal added.

Matthew Brelis, a spokesman for Rollins, said in an e-mailed statement Wednesday that the office is reviewing 64 boxes of materials and numerous electronic files produced by inspector general investigators to determine whether they contain any “potentially responsive materials” regarding Saunders.

“As the filing suggests, there is a stain on the criminal legal system because of the criminal malfeasance that plagued the state’s main forensic testing facility,” Brelis said.

Reached by phone Tuesday, Saunders — who now works as a forensic chemist for the state’s Department of Public Health — said she was unaware of the recent filing but was “not particularly concerned about it.”

“No one said anything to me,” she said. “I can’t respond to something I don’t know about.”

Asked whether she stood by her work during her time at the lab, Saunders declined to answer, directing a reporter to a Department of Public Health spokesperson. Spokeswoman Ann Scales said the department doesn’t comment on pending litigation or provide details on personnel.

In 2014, Inspector General Glenn A. Cunha’s probe turned up numerous issues at the Hinton lab in Jamaica Plain, ranging from mismanagement to neglect.

In the end, however, it determined that Dookhan — who admitted, among other offenses, to engaging in “dry-labbing,” or failing to fully analyze the drug samples that she analyzed — was the lab’s “sole bad actor.”

Advertisement



Chemist Annie Dookhan entered a guilty plea at Suffolk Superior Court on Nov. 22, 2013.
Chemist Annie Dookhan entered a guilty plea at Suffolk Superior Court on Nov. 22, 2013. David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/file

Dookhan pleaded guilty in 2013 to 27 counts of tampering with evidence, misleading investigators, and filing false reports. Farak pleaded guilty in 2014 to stealing drug samples at the state lab in Amherst to feed her addiction. Both are now free after serving less than five years behind bars.

But questions about the extent of the wrongdoing — and the thoroughness of the inspector general’s investigation — linger.

Several state court judges have raised concerns about the state’s failure to fully investigate the Hinton lab.

The Globe reported earlier this year that Michael Wolf, a forensic expert and former FBI official who served as a consultant on the inspector general’s investigation, warned Cunha, the inspector general, in 2013 that additional chemists should be probed, including those whose production mirrored that of Dookhan.

Dookhan’s “consistently high level of sample testing was cited as a red flag for management,” Wolf had warned Cunha in an e-mail, records show. Wolf specifically named seven chemists besides Dookhan who he felt warranted further scrutiny, but he did not include Saunders as part of that group.

It’s unclear how deeply other chemists were examined.

In a lengthy e-mailed statement Wednesday, Jack Meyers, a spokesman for Cunha, defended the office’s investigation.

“In over six years since we issued our report, no one has come forward with any evidence of wrongdoing beyond what our investigation uncovered,” the statement read. “We have misled no one.”

Advertisement



Meyers noted that Rollins is “carrying out her duty” to examine a matter on behalf of a defendant. “We are providing her office with access to our files so she can satisfy her discovery obligations and we are confident that once completed, the discovery will demonstrate the thoroughness of our investigation of the Hinton Lab. "

Cunha has previously said his office found no malfeasance beyond that of Dookhan. He has acknowledged in a court filing that his office never specifically investigated any other chemists. This week, however, the office said the investigation “did encompass all the chemists at the lab.”

Saunders, who has previously said under oath that she started working at the lab in 1985, developed into a prolific worker. Prior to Dookhan’s arrival in 2004, Saunders far outpaced other chemists with her test results, according to court records.

Between 2004 and 2011, when she worked alongside Dookhan, Saunders analyzed 38,600 drug samples to Dookhan’s 54,000, according to state DPH records.

In an interview in October, Rollins acknowledged that her office was reviewing cases in which evidence was tested by a third chemist. Rollins declined at the time to name that third chemist.

“The numbers are troubling,” she said at the time, referring to the high productivity level of the unnamed chemist, now identified as Saunders.

The case that sparked renewed attention in the state drug lab centers on Justino Escobar, whose 2009 conviction for cocaine trafficking relied on drugs tested by Saunders.

Advertisement



Sentenced to eight to 12 years in state prison, Escobar has since been released and is challenging his conviction, claiming the state failed to investigate Saunders during its probe of lab wrongdoing.

James P. McKenna, an attorney for Escobar, said Tuesday that the inspector general engaged in an “inexcusable breach of constitutional duty” by failing to investigate other chemists at the lab, and accused the office of misleading the public about the extent of the investigation.

“Their March 2014 report suggests that they ruled out other bad actors,” he said. “But they didn’t.”

In 2018, the state Supreme Judicial Court affirmed a lower court judge’s ruling that the state turn over to Escobar information about Saunders, including portions of her personnel files, interview notes made during the state’s probe of the lab, and a list of court cases in which Saunders testified as the “certifying chemist.”

Rollins’s office must turn over its findings to Escobar’s legal team.

Rollins is seeking until January to finish reviewing the materials and other potentially exculpatory evidence it may have to turn over to Escobar, as well as determine if a further examination of a state investigation of the lab, including Cunha’s, that could impact Suffolk County cases is needed.

“This case is unfortunately one of too many where the integrity of the conviction is now suspect due to the notorious misconduct that plagued the state’s main forensic testing facility,” Rollins office noted in the recent filing.

Rollins is the third state prosecutor this year to publicly raise questions about the Hinton investigation.

In October, Norfolk District Attorney Michael W. Morrissey told the Globe he will dismiss 200 cases by year’s end in which the evidence was handled by Farak.

In September, Middlesex District Attorney Marian T. Ryan sent a critical letter to Cunha’s office, saying a “cloud of doubt” hangs over the inspector general’s investigation. In a letter sent back to Ryan, Cunha vowed to provide more information on how his office made its determination. To date, he has not done so.

Attorney Christopher Post, who got a Middlesex County drug lab case dismissed in which the samples were analyzed by both Saunders and Farak, applauded Rollins for her action this week.

After a judge had ordered a new trial, prosecutors in Post’s case chose to drop the matter because drug samples were no longer available for retesting. They did not cite Saunders as a reason for the dismissal.

For his case, Post hired a statistician who found that between 2003 and 2012, Saunders had the third highest testing volume at Hinton.

“She is one of the few chemists in the lab who repeatedly reported doing well over 500 analyses per month,” Post said. “The only two individuals who were worse were Dookhan and Farak.”


Dugan Arnett can be reached at dugan.arnett@globe.com.