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Advocates applaud Rollins’s request to overturn thousands of convictions linked to troubled drug lab

District Attorney Rachael Rollins spoke during a press conference in June.
District Attorney Rachael Rollins spoke during a press conference in June.Christiana Botic for The Boston Globe

Since the state first revealed in 2012 that there was trouble with drug testing at William A. Hinton State Laboratory Institute, some lawyers have argued that all drug evidence processed there during the tenures of two troubled chemists was in doubt, and convictions linked to the scandal-plagued facility should be overturned.

On Saturday, that vision appeared to be gaining momentum as a result of a move by Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins that could potentially wipe out tens of thousands of drug convictions based on testing at the Jamaica Plain lab.

“If you want to build confidence in the criminal legal system, you can’t have circumstances where people cheated and won,” said attorney Carlton Williams, who handled drug lab litigation for the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts and now teaches at Cornell Law School.

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Rollins’s request, he said, moves the state’s legal system closer to acknowledging it can’t vouch for evidence handled by the lab, and needs to make amends to defendants who were convicted of crimes based on drug tests performed there.

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 between May 2003 and August 2012 — 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.

The period in question extends from the time that troubled chemist Annie Dookhan began working at the lab until its closure. Rollins’s request would apply to about 70,000 cases certified by the facility, though her office said it is still trying to determine how many defendants could see their drug convictions reversed.

In 2017, the SJC ordered district attorneys in six counties to dismiss more than 21,000 drug cases tainted by the scandal involving Dookhan, who served less than three years in state prison.

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Another chemist, Sonja Farak, who was convicted in 2014 of stealing drugs from a state lab in Amherst, had also tested nearly 10,000 drug samples at the Hinton lab, according to state records. Authorities have also identified numerous issues within the lab, including chronic managerial negligence, inadequate training, and a lack of professional standards.

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, Rollins’s office wrote in its motion.

She filed the request in the case of Justino Escobar, 49, 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.

Attorney James P. McKenna, who represents Escobar, said his client is now doing “very well” after serving prison time, lives on the North Shore, and has a cleaning job.

“It’s not a question about getting people out of jail or prison,” he said Saturday. “It’s a question about making things right.”

McKenna said he also intends to ask for Escobar’s case to be combined with similar proceedings that originated in Middlesex County.

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Earlier this year, Middlesex District Attorney Marian T. Ryan asked the SJC to review findings from Inspector General Glenn Cunha, who found gross mismanagement and incompetence at the lab, and to determine whether all of the drug analyses done there should be considered tainted. Her request is pending.

In a statement issued Friday, the ACLU of Massachusetts applauded Rollins’s move and expressed hope that other district attorneys would pursue similar measures. So far, the drug lab scandal has resulted in more than 61,000 charges being dismissed across more than 35,000 cases, the statement said.

Defendants whose cases have been overturned stand to get millions of dollars in reimbursements for fees and fines that they paid, and other proceedings are pending over accusations of prosecutorial misconduct.

“During the Massachusetts drug lab scandals, thousands of people were wrongfully convicted of drug crimes based on faulty evidence and a government cover-up,” said Carol Rose, executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts. “Although we cannot recover all the time, housing, jobs, and other opportunities that were wrongfully taken from people, this litigation has delivered some justice to them.”

In a related development 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 board’s officer asked those involved to recommend disciplinary sanctions by mid-August.

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Laura Crimaldi can be reached at laura.crimaldi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @lauracrimaldi.