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Rollins moves to overturn thousands of convictions based on testing at now-closed state drug lab

She seeks a “global” solution that may throw out as many as 70,000 “tainted” convictions

Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins on Thursday moved to overturn tens of thousands of drug convictions that were based on testing conducted at the scandal-plagued William A. Hinton State Laboratory Institute, which closed in 2012.

In court papers filed Thursday, Rollins’s office asked that the Supreme Judicial Court decide whether new trials should be granted to anyone whose evidence was tested at the lab — regardless of whether the chemist who did the analysis has been implicated in wrongdoing. If the court agrees, the DA would then likely drop the charges against most of the defendants.

“This shameful chapter of our history will take dedication and perseverance to undo,” said Rollins in a statement. “The public deserves to have faith in the government. If we continue to refuse to acknowledge our failures and misdeeds at the Hinton Lab, or cling to being right for fear of ‘opening the floodgates’ regarding the tens of thousands of impacted cases and individuals, we will have lost a tremendous opportunity to show true leadership and reconciliation.”

Though most of the defendants have already served time for their alleged crimes, their convictions “can have life-long impacts” on their ability to find a job, attend college, and secure housing or government benefits, the motion says. Prior convictions can also result in longer sentences if someone is found guilty in another case, the filing says.


Rollins had previously vowed to work with defense attorneys to resolve questions about any drug convictions tied to analyses done at the William A. Hinton State Laboratory Institute since May 2003, when disgraced chemist Annie Dookhan began working there. But Rollins concluded that it would be extremely difficult and unjust to address the issues on a case-by-case basis.

“Forcing individual parties impacted by egregious and extensive governmental misconduct to litigate just resolutions in approximately 70,000 separate cases each infected with evidence from the Hinton Lab is grossly inefficient, patently unfair, and demonstrably inequitable,” said the filing, written by Donna Patalano, Rollins’s general counsel.


The catastrophic failure of management at the lab “constitutes egregious government misconduct requiring a global resolution,” she wrote.

While two chemists, Dookhan and Sonja Farak, were 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.

Inspector General Glenn Cunha, Patalano wrote, revealed gross mismanagement and incompetence at the lab.

“We now know that there has been criminal conduct by multiple chemists, each of whom worked at the Hinton Lab for some period of time,” wrote Patalano. “That coupled with the documented gross management of the entire lab does not and should not instill confidence in any of the work product coming from Hinton.”

“As the government, we should be held to the highest of standards. When we fail, we must admit that failure and immediately implement changes to assure we don’t make the same mistakes twice. We should also make it easier, not harder, for the public to be made whole when we fail them. Piecemeal solutions do not get us there,” she wrote.

She filed the motion in the case of Justino Escobar, who challenged his 2009 cocaine trafficking conviction because the evidence was tested at Hinton by a third chemist Della Saunders, who has not been charged with wrongdoing. Rollins’s office agreed to Escobar’s motion for a new trial and said it would dismiss the case.


“This case is unfortunately one of too many where the integrity of the conviction is now suspect due to the notorious mismanagement that plagued the state’s main forensic testing facility, the Hinton Lab, for nearly a decade,” Rollins said in the filing.

Rollins said her office is still trying to determine the total number of individuals with drug convictions tied to Hinton, but she 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. She said she does not yet know precisely how many cases could end up being dismissed.

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.

Middlesex County District Attorney Marian Ryan in May made a similar request to the state’s Supreme Judicial Court and is awaiting a decision. She asked the court to review Cunha’s findings and determine whether all of the drug analyses done at the Hinton lab should be considered tainted.

“We applaud Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins for joining us in seeking a systemic resolution to this systemic problem,” said Ryan.

Dookhan pleaded guilty in 2013 to tampering with evidence, including falsifying exam results and dry labbing samples — that is eyeballing them — 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. She had previously worked at the Hinton lab.

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 closed.

The fallout from the scandal has persisted for years. More than 7,800 cases already have been thrown out. Defendants whose cases have been overturned stand to get millions of dollars in reimbursements for fees and fines that they paid.

Meanwhile on Friday, an officer for the state’s Board of Bar Overseers found three drug lab prosecutors — Anne K. Kaczmarek, John C. Verner, and Kris C. Foster — committed “numerous lapses, oversights, intentional misconduct and rule violations.” The trio worked for the attorney general’s office between 2013 and 2016.

The harshest criticism was aimed at Kaczmarek for, among other ethical breaches, knowingly failing to turn over materials to district attorneys handling Farak cases. This included mental health worksheets discovered during a search of Farak’s car and information that Farak had tampered with oxycodone samples in a Hampden County drug case and with cocaine samples in a 2005 case.

The board’s officer asked those involved to recommend disciplinary sanctions by mid-August.


Globe correspondent Maggie Mulvihill contributed to this report.

Andrea Estes can be reached at