Lawyers representing four defendants convicted of drug charges based on tests done at a now-closed state lab in Jamaica Plain are seeking new trials for their clients after court documents released last week suggested that employee misconduct was more widespread than previously known.
For years, state officials insisted that Annie Dookhan was solely responsible for falsified drug testing at the Hinton Drug Lab from 2003 to 2012, which led to the overturning of thousands of convictions in the biggest drug lab scandal in US history. But the newly released records from a state investigation into the scandal identified at least four other lab employees who may have falsified tests or helped cover it up. All had been referred to the attorney general’s office for possible criminal charges several years ago, but the allegations were never made public until last week.
One defense lawyer, J. Gregory Batten, asked US Attorney Rachael Rollins to bring possible civil or criminal charges against former officials who allegedly knew there were other chemists involved in misconduct, but failed to disclose the allegations to defense lawyers or the public.
Batten singled out former inspector general Glenn Cunha, whose investigation of the drug lab concluded in 2014 that Dookhan was the “sole bad actor,” as well as former attorney general Martha Coakley and Governor Maura Healey, who served as attorney general from 2015 through 2022.
Coakley and Healey both received recommendations from Cunha to bring criminal charges against at least four other lab employees, but chose not to.
The inspector general’s “referrals of (other) Hinton Drug Lab chemists to the Attorney General’s office for criminal prosecution prove unequivocally that the OIG lied about Annie Dookhan being the sole bad actor . . . and that the Attorney General’s office conspired with the OIG to cover-up the lie,” Batten charged in his 10-page request to Rollins for an investigation. Batten attached more than 150 additional pages of exhibits.
Batten alleged the failure to investigate the other chemists or notify defense attorneys about the allegations against them amounted to a “fraud on the public, defendants, the court.”
A spokesperson for Rollins declined comment. But Rollins has taken an active interest in the drug lab scandal. As Suffolk district attorney, she unsuccessfully fought to vacate convictions in cases tied to testing at the Hinton Lab.
Healey, Cunha, and Coakley declined comment. Cunha said ethical rules for lawyers prohibit him from discussing the ongoing case. Coakley has previously said that her office received referrals for criminal investigations from a variety of agencies, but that the referrals didn’t necessarily result in prosecutions.
The attorney for Kate Corbett, one of the chemists whom Cunha referred for possible criminal charges in the drug lab scandal, said the newly disclosed allegations against his client are ridiculous. In the referral disclosed last week, Corbett allegedly tested one drug sample three times until she found clear evidence of the drug, oxycodone.
“Baseless claims like this don’t help lawyers or their clients. Kate Corbett did nothing wrong and everything right,” said her lawyer, Thomas Hoopes.
The drug lab scandal has already shaken the Massachusetts justice system, sending Dookhan to prison from 2014 to 2016 and leading to the closure of the Hinton Lab, one of two in Massachusetts that were supposed to verify evidence in drug cases. Dookhan admitted that she sometimes failed to test the drugs at all and once identified table salt as an illegal drug. More than 35,000 cases were thrown out based on testing by Dookhan and another chemist, Sonja Farak who worked mainly in Western Massachusetts.
Documents released last week by Middlesex Superior Court Judge Patrick Haggan include records from Cunha’s office over the course of multiple investigations that his office carried out at the request of former governor Deval Patrick. Staff in the inspector general’s office wrote e-mails alleging that various unnamed Hinton employees had mishandled drug tests, raising the possibility that even more employees were involved in wrongdoing.
The new documents are setting off a new round of calls for tossing out drug convictions based on evidence from the Hinton Lab. Though few defendants from the Dookhan era are still in prison, wiping out past convictions could make it easier for the defendants in everything from getting a job to reducing jail time on any subsequent convictions.
“We believe that there are tens of thousands of convictions that are tainted by the new information we received, and we are still evaluating our legal options,” said Robert McGovern, spokesman for the Committee for Public Counsel Services, the agency that represents indigent defendants. “Right now it is of the utmost importance to provide counsel to those people whose lives are immediately — and potentially irrevocably — effected by the ongoing drug lab scandal.”
By the time Cunha released his report in 2014 concluding that Dookhan was “the sole bad actor” at the lab, he had already quietly referred another lab employee to Coakley for criminal prosecution, according to the new documents. , Three months before he issued his 2014 report on the drug lab, according to the documents, Cunha referred to the attorney general’s office Julie Nassif, who oversaw the Division of Analytical Chemistry within the Department of Public Health at the time of Dookhan’s crimes.
He alleged that she misled the State Police when they interviewed her about Dookhan’s misconduct. She was fired in 2012, according to published reports.
A lawyer for Nassif declined to comment.
The Dookhan case was politically sensitive for Coakley, unfolding as she was running for governor against Charlie Baker, who ultimately won. During the campaign, she vowed that, if elected, there would not be another drug lab scandal under her administration. Some defense lawyers suspect Cunha and Coakley remained quiet about other allegations of misconduct at the lab — beyond Dookhan — for political reasons.
After Healey became attorney general in 2015, Cunha referred two more Hinton Lab chemists or supervisors for alleged misconduct, including falsely labeling substances illegal drugs when they weren’t, spiking samples with illegal drugs, or lying to investigators.
CPCS lawyers say their own internal investigation found three additional chemists who may have produced faulty test results — beyond the four disclosed in court documents last week.
On Tuesday, lawyers for four defendants — Reginald Remy, Ricky Simmons, Justin Deprospo, and Israel Cedono-Martinez — asked Judge Haggan to grant their clients new trials or allow them to withdraw their guilty pleas. All but Deprospo pled guilty. He was convicted at trial.
They acknowledged that only one of the chemists named in the new documents worked on their clients’ case. But the lawyers argued that any conviction based on testing done at the Hinton Lab between 2003 and 2012 should be considered flawed.
“The integrity of the evidence entrusted to such (a) laboratory lacks sufficient integrity to support convictions,” the lawyers — Batten, James McKenna, and Abby Shyavitz — wrote.
In Batten’s letter to Rollins, he alleged the officials’ failure to disclose the criminal referrals of other chemists was “unlawful and violated the rules of professional conduct” for lawyers. They could be charged with perjury, he said, or conspiracy for allegedly colluding to coverup the alleged misconduct.
Last week’s document release capped a two-year fight by defense attorneys to obtain the inspector general’s internal records. Many months after Dookhan pled guilty in 2014, the misdeeds of a second chemist, Farak, working in a different lab in Western Massachusetts, came to light. Farak, who primarily worked in Amherst, was accused of using drugs she stole on the job.
The lawyers representing four drug defendants began seeking documents related to Cunha’s investigation because they suspected other chemists engaged in wrongdoing.
Last July, Middlesex Superior Court Judge John Lu ordered Cuhna to allow prosecutors to review his records. A Middlesex County assistant district attorney, Ryan Rall, combed through more than 100,000 electronic records from Cunha’s office until he discovered the documents related to referrals and potential wrongdoing by other chemists.
But the documents remained unavailable to the public until last week when Haggan released them.
Andrea Estes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.