Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins launched a historic effort Thursday to overturn charges in tens of thousands of criminal cases built on drug evidence she says were tainted by rampant mismanagement and misconduct at a now-shuttered state drug lab.
Defense attorneys, academics, and staffers from across the criminal justice system gathered in a virtual meeting for Rollins’s inaugural “Hinton Lab Initiative” summit, embarking on a massive, yearlong attempt to remedy convictions tied to the largest drug lab scandal in US history.
“This morning was a monumental first step where nearly 70 partners from every single part of the criminal justice system were on a call together to start the long process of recovery from a systemic failure,” Rollins told the Globe.
About 20 minutes into the 90-minute videoconference, Rollins divided the attendees into groups and handed out assignments. One team was tasked with identifying convictions tied to evidence tested at the William A. Hinton State Laboratory Institute between May 2003 and August 2012, when disgraced chemists Annie Dookhan and Sonja Farak worked there.
Another group will devise a strategy to dismiss the charges, and a third team will assist defendants whose convictions resulted in other adverse effects, such as immigration violations or enhanced sentences because of prior convictions. Others will work on a plan to ensure that such a crisis never occurs again in Massachusetts, Rollins said.
Rebecca Jacobstein, a Committee for Public Counsel Services attorney who took part in the strategy session, praised the effort.
“It’s a lot of work,” she said, “but it’s worth it because its meaningful to the people who get the relief.”
Rollins’s office has said 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.
Dookhan pleaded guilty in 2013 to tampering with evidence, including falsifying exam results and eyeballing drugs to judge their weight instead of actually testing them. She served less than three years in state prison.
Farak pleaded guilty in 2014 to stealing drugs from the state lab in Amherst and was released after serving less than her full 18-month House of Correction sentence.
The Hinton lab in Jamaica Plain was originally run by the state Department of Public Health before the State Police took over drug testing in 2012. The scandal started to unfold later that year and then-Governor Deval Patrick ordered the facility shuttered.
The fallout from the scandal has percolated for years. Rollins unveiled her initiative last month, while moving to dismiss a heroin trafficker’s conviction because the drugs were tested at Hinton.
The initiative only affects Suffolk County cases.
Earlier this week, the state’s Supreme Judicial Court rejected a request by Middlesex District Attorney Marian T. Ryan that the court review the adequacy of a state inspector general’s investigation into Hinton and consider vacating tens of thousands of drug cases statewide.
A 2014 investigation by Inspector General Glen A. Cunha — part of a 14-month, $6.2 million probe — concluded that Dookhan was the “sole bad actor” at the lab. But defense attorneys, judges, and prosecutors such as Ryan have since called for a broader examination.
Last month, Ryan pitched a potential systemic approach to a bulk dismissal of Hinton-tainted cases. But SJC Associate Justice David A. Lowy dismissed the request this week, stating the court oversees only the lower courts, not prosecutors. Lowy also said the high court provides advisory opinions to the governor, Governor’s Council, and the Legislature, but not to prosecutors.
But Lowy noted the gravity of the crisis and that the high court may yet be untangling the scandal, which to date has cost taxpayers $30 million.
Ryan said Thursday she is not giving up.
“The allegations of misconduct at the Hinton Lab have cast doubt on the integrity of cases statewide and the solution to this problem must reflect that by going beyond the cases in just one county,” Ryan said in an e-mail statement.
“While we are still exploring our options to move forward, we are determined to continue to pursue a comprehensive solution that not only addresses each defendant’s case but also addresses the collateral consequences.”
Rollins applauded Ryan for her resolve.
“Although she wasn’t successful, at least she was thinking big,” Rollins said.
State prosecutors have staked out different positions on the questions surrounding Hinton. Last month, Cape & Islands District Attorney Michael D. O’Keefe called the Hinton Lab Initiative a Rollins “political publicity stunt.”
Boston attorney Vince DeMore, who ran the Suffolk County District Attorney’s drug lab unit from 2012 to 2015, said the court is sending a message to the prosecutors to “get to the bottom” of the Hinton disaster.
“The court seems to be saying, go litigate it, do an investigation, get to the bottom of it,” DeMore said. “It is not enough to dismiss the cases. The court wants to know what happened.”