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More cases tied to scandal-plagued drug lab could be tossed in ‘nightmare scenario’ for state’s criminal justice system

The Middlesex DA wants the Supreme Judicial Court to investigate and potentially invalidate a decade’s worth of drug tests

The state shut down the Hinton State Laboratory Institute in Jamaica Plain in 2012.
The state shut down the Hinton State Laboratory Institute in Jamaica Plain in 2012.Tamir Kalifa for The Boston Globe

Middlesex District Attorney Marian T. Ryan on Friday asked the Supreme Judicial Court to investigate and potentially invalidate a decade’s worth of drug tests conducted by a scandal-plagued state laboratory, a sweeping move that could result in the dismissal of tens of thousands of criminal charges and convictions.

The move by Ryan follows Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins’s Monday announcement that she intends to vacate all convictions in her county with ties to the troubled William A. Hinton State Laboratory Institute as a result of widespread, systemic misconduct at the state-run lab. However, Ryan’s proposal, which was aided by the state public defender’s office, encompasses cases across the state and not just those in Middlesex.

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The latest developments by two leading district attorneys add fuel to the still burning embers of what was already the largest drug lab scandal in US history. And the effects could be far-reaching, affecting current and long-settled cases, and potentially setting the stage for a complex legal showdown between the state’s top court and the nine other district attorneys.

“This is totally unprecedented — I’ve never heard anything of this scale,” said Nathan H. Lents, a biology professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. “It’s a nightmare scenario for the criminal justice system in Massachusetts. There’s no other way to say it.”

Citing the state’s “abject failure to adequately and appropriately manage a forensic agency,” Rollins said in a court filing earlier this week that she intends to void Suffolk criminal convictions tied to nearly 75,000 drug tests performed at Hinton between 2003 and its shuttering in 2012.

Just days later, Ryan filed a measure that could increase that number nearly five-fold. The filing asks the state’s top court to review a controversial 2014 state investigation into the lab to determine whether a “bulk dismissal” of cases is warranted.

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“A systemic issue requires a systemic resolution, not piecemeal litigation,” Ryan wrote in the filing, which came in response to questions raised by two defendants — Ricky Simmons and Israel Cedeno-Martinez — who pleaded guilty to drug charges stemming from evidence tested at Hinton.

“The Commonwealth requires the direction and guidance of the Supreme Judicial Court to ensure that justice was done in the cases of thousands of citizens of this Commonwealth arising from testing at the Hinton Lab.”

Roughly 350,000 tests were conducted by more than a dozen lab chemists during that 10-year period, according to records from the state public defender’s office — representing the majority of all criminal drug tests conducted by the state in that timeframe. No one knows exactly how many cases or defendants could be affected. One former Suffolk County drug lab unit prosecutor estimated the number could include up to 50,000 convictions across the state.

District attorneys from other counties have yet to join the emerging effort to overturn cases tied to the lab.

In an interview with the Globe, Ryan called it nonsensical for prosecutors in Massachusetts to litigate tainted cases one-by-one, calling it a costly “continuing drip, drip of Hinton.”

“We have to get to the end of Hinton,” Ryan said.

The ripples of the scandal have reverberated through the state’s criminal justice system since 2012, when then-chemist Annie Dookhan admitted to investigators that she’d failed to fully analyze numerous drug samples over a period of several years, acknowledging that she visually identified them as drugs but didn’t actually test them.

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A 2014 investigation into Hinton by state Inspector General Glenn A. Cunha turned up widespread issues at the facility, ranging from chronic managerial negligence to inadequate training and a lack of professional standards — though it determined that Dookhan was the lab’s “sole bad actor.”

She pleaded guilty in 2013 to misleading investigators, filing false reports, and tampering with evidence, and served less than three years behind bars. Another chemist, Sonja Farak, pleaded guilty in 2014 to stealing drugs to feed her addiction while working at the state’s Amherst lab and was sentenced to 18 months in jail.

To date, the Amherst and Hinton fiascos have cost taxpayers a minimum of $30 million, with another $10 million in fee reimbursements expected to be paid to wrongfully convicted individuals. That total, legal experts said, was likely to grow significantly following this week’s developments.

The SJC, so far, has been reluctant to approve the universal dismissal of cases tied to Hinton, despite multiple requests from the state defense bar.

But Ryan’s motion represents the first time such a measure will be brought by a prosecutor — and in concert with defense attorneys.

What’s more, questions have intensified over the adequacy of the 2014 inspector general probe into the Hinton lab. In addition to Ryan, several Massachusetts judges and attorneys have raised questions about the investigation in recent years, including how deeply others in the lab were examined.

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Cunha, who led the 15-month, $6 million inquiry, defended the findings in a statement Friday.

“D.A. Ryan is seeking guidance from the court on her discovery obligations,” Cunha said. “We stand by our report and investigation, which found no evidence of misconduct by any chemist other than Dookhan that impacted the reliability of drug testing at the Hinton lab.”

The two new legal challenges are different and extensive in scope. Rollins announced an initiative to overturn convictions strictly in her district, whereas Ryan is asking the SJC to examine all Hinton cases and consider a sweeping statewide dismissal.

In addition to the tens of thousands of defendants immediately affected by Rollins’s action, a slew of others may be able to challenge their convictions. For example, defendants indicted or serving a sentence in other states, in federal criminal court, or the US Immigration Court might also have the opportunity to challenge their conviction if it was based on an illegal Suffolk County drug case, attorneys said. For those who have already served a sentence, their conviction would be invalidated, though it could still remain on their record.

A bulk dismissal of cases by the SJC could raise complex — and unprecedented — legal questions, said former SJC chief justice John M. Greaney.

“The district attorneys are elected by the people and might have the power to override any decision the court made,” said Greaney. “It’s a possible clash between the two branches of government.”

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“I don’t think this has ever arisen before, not necessarily in this context,” he added.

It remains to be seen whether other prosecutors could be compelled to react to Rollins and Ryan.

Cape and Islands District Attorney Michael D. O’Keefe, who described Rollins’s initiative as a “political publicity stunt,” said his office would review cases only if new evidence was presented showing additional issues with the lab.

“This issue, as far as I’m concerned, is a closed issue until somebody presents evidence to us that something wrong was done,” he said.

O’Keefe, who serves as president of the Massachusetts District Attorney Association, said the group had yet to discuss the matter.

Norfolk District Attorney Michael W. Morrissey said his office wouldn’t dismiss additional cases without evidence that chemists other than Dookhan and Farak engaged in misconduct.

Vince DeMore, a Boston attorney who previously led the Suffolk district attorney’s drug lab unit, said that the SJC’s previous unwillingness to order the bulk dismissal of Hinton cases has been largely tied to the inspector general’s report.

But if a review of that investigation revealed new information, the SJC could be uniquely positioned, DeMore said, to restore confidence in the system.

“They haven’t really flinched when faced with these things before,” said DeMore, pointing to past examples like the high court’s willingness to appoint a special master to probe the scandal-ridden probation department. “It’s viewed as an organization that doesn’t run away.”


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