Citing widespread misconduct and a “catastrophic failure of management,” Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins on Monday announced a plan to drop charges in tens of thousands of criminal cases that had evidence processed at a scandal-plagued state drug lab, widening the scope of what was already the largest drug lab scandal in the country’s history.
Rollins outlined her plan, called the Hinton Lab Initiative, in a court filing Monday, vowing to work with attorneys to resolve drug convictions tied to analyses done at the William A. Hinton State Laboratory Institute between May 2003 and its closing in August 2012.
“No defendant harmed in this ignominious chapter of Massachusetts law enforcement history should continue to bear the burden and be marked with the brand of the Commonwealth’s extensive wrong doing,” Rollins’ office wrote in the filing.
Two former state chemists were previously convicted of tainting or tampering with evidence. Authorities have also identified numerous issues within the lab, including chronic managerial negligence, inadequate training, and a lack of professional standards.
Rollins said her office is still trying to determine the total number of individuals with drug convictions tied to Hinton, but noted that more than 190,000 cases were processed through the facility between 2003 and 2012, and that approximately 74,848 test analyses could be tossed out through the initiative.
Though Rollins’s program involves only Suffolk County cases, it will likely impact cases prosecuted in other counties, as well. The move may also result in additional civil suits and payouts.
“The Massachusetts audit was already the largest forensics audit in US history,” said Brandon L. Garrett, a professor of law at Duke University and author of the book ‘Autopsy of a Crime Lab.’ “And what was outlined today is two times bigger, again.”
The announcement was met with praise from many Monday, including the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, which has previously called for mass exonerations of those affected by the drug lab scandals.
“Although we cannot recover all the time, housing, jobs, and other opportunities that were wrongfully taken from people,” said Carol Rose, the group’s executive director, “this litigation has delivered some justice to them.”
Even before Monday’s revelations, fallout from the decade-long drug lab scandal had been extensive, resulting in the dismissal of more than 35,000 drug convictions, as well as the prosecution of former state chemists Annie Dookhan and Sonja Farak. Their misconduct has cost the state more than $30 million to date.
Those wrongfully convicted of drug crimes have received penalties including prison or jail time, loss of parental rights and, in an untold number of cases, deportation. Today, taxpayers continue to shoulder millions to clean up the scandal, including repaying defendants an estimated $10 million for court, probation, and other fees stemming from their prosecutions. Three state prosecutors are also facing the loss of their law license for withholding evidence in a pending case with the Board of Bar Overseers.
Rollins’ announcement came in a motion in the case of Justino Escobar, who is challenging his 2009 heroin trafficking conviction because the evidence was tested at Hinton. Rollins’s office agreed to Escobar’s motion for a new trial, saying it would dismiss the case.
“Rachael Rollins has set the bar very high and where it is supposed to be,” said Escobar’s attorney, James P. McKenna.
Monday’s filing also makes clear that the lab’s troubles extended beyond chemists Dookhan, who worked at Hinton, and Farak, who in 2014 pleaded guilty to stealing drug evidence at the state lab in Amherst to feed her addiction.
Steve Benjamin, former president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, called Rollins’s decision “tremendously significant” as it serves as an acknowledgement of a failure beyond the misconduct of two particular chemists.
“Because this was such a complete failure to detect false, fraudulent laboratory work by these two chemists, it reflects a breakdown of the entire laboratory system, and leaves no reason why any other work should be trusted,” said Benjamin, who practices law in Richmond.
Hinton was originally run by the state Department of Public Health before the State Police took over drug testing in 2012. The first rumblings of trouble came that year, when then-Governor Deval Patrick ordered the facility closed after learning that Dookhan had been caught in 2011 breaking chain-of-custody protocols. Patrick enlisted state Inspector General Glenn A. Cunha to investigate lab operations.
The 15-month investigation — which included interviews with 40 people and a review of more than 200,000 lab records, test results, e-mails and other documents — found serious management deficiencies at the facility, a lack of protocols and standards for drug testing, and no training to keep employees up-to-date on industry practices.
Though an investigator at the time flagged several chemists that should be probed, Cunha’s office ultimately determined that Dookhan — who admitted to investigators that she’d failed to fully analyze the drug samples that she analyzed — was the “sole bad actor” at the Hinton lab.
Dookhan pleaded guilty in 2013 to 27 counts of tampering with evidence, misleading investigators, and filing false reports. She is currently free after serving less than three years incarcerated.
But questions over the investigation’s thoroughness lingered.
In the years since, several Massachusetts judges and attorneys have raised questions about the inspector general’s investigation. Middlesex District Attorney Marian T. Ryan last year sent a letter to Cunha — as well as Governor Charlie Baker and the secretary of public safety — seeking information about why Dookhan was considered Hinton’s sole rogue chemist.
In a December court filing, Rollins’ office said it was examining inspector general files to determine whether the state examined other chemists, specifically Della Saunders.
Saunders, who worked alongside Dookhan at the Hinton facility for years, regularly recorded testing numbers close to those of Dookhan between 2004 and 2012, according to a December 2020 filing submitted by Rollins’ office.
Monday’s filing, however, essentially cleared Saunders, who later went to work as a forensic chemist for the state’s Department of Public Health.
Cunha released a statement Monday noting that Rollins “credited our reports and underlying investigation as sufficient and relied on it to support her decision today.”
While the ACLU and Committee for Public Counsel Services on Monday called on other district attorneys with cases tied to the Hinton lab to take similar measures, meanwhile, it remained unclear which jurisdictions could be compelled to follow suit.
Prosecutors in Plymouth, Essex, Bristol, and Middlesex counties did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment.
David Traub, a spokesman for Norkfolk District Attorney Michael W. Morrissey, said the office would review Suffolk’s findings but pointed out that the office had already dropped thousands of cases tied to the Hinton lab. Given that the conduct took place a decade or more ago, the office would have no pending cases and few, if any, individuals still in custody in those cases. For those in prison or with a prior conviction related to Hinton analyses, “they could be effected by a dismissal like those occurring in Suffolk,” he said.
Daniel Marx, an attorney who represents tens of thousands of Dookhan and Farak defendants seeking reimbursement for fees paid as part of their convictions, lauded the news.
He said defense attorneys have been fighting prosecutors for years to try to redress the injustices perpetrated on drug defendants who were wrongfully convicted.
“This is a step that should have been taken years ago,” Marx said.
“What Rollins has done here is look at the big picture,” he added. “This was never about just two bad apples.”
Dugan Arnett can be reached at email@example.com.