As thousands of criminal convictions are being questioned because of suspected evidence tampering in a state drug lab, police and prosecutors are grappling with how to keep communities safe as sentences are stayed and defendants are released from state custody.
Their concerns were highlighted this week when a convicted felon with a 10-page criminal record that includes rape and assault charges became a fugitive after failing to appear at a scheduled court hearing Thursday. Another man who once shot at two police officers was released this week.
While prosecutors are scrutinizing cases and trying to keep dangerous offenders from being released, Boston police are preparing for many of the defendants to be turned loose.
The Boston Police Department is ramping up prisoner reentry outreach efforts — including housing and employment help and substance-abuse support services — to discourage them from engaging in criminal activity once they are free, Commissioner Edward F. Davis said Thursday.
“If people are wrongly convicted, they need to be released; there’s no equivocating on that,” Davis said. “But if they are released, we have to do everything we can to make sure the city remains safe.”
State Police have identified 60,000 drug samples, involving 34,000 criminal cases, which may have been tainted by chemist Annie Dookhan in the former Department of Public Health drug lab in Jamaica Plain. She allegedly admitted to State Police investigators that she mishandled drug evidence, including not doing proper testing on drug samples “for about two or three years.”
“It remains to be seen how much damage Ms. Dookhan has done to our crime-
reduction efforts over the past few years, and it’s tragic on so many levels,” Davis said. “People who shouldn’t be in prison are in prison, and so much work that has been accomplished has gone to waste.”
Dozens of people have been released. Boston Municipal Court officials are bracing for 19 more “Dookhan defendants” to appeal for their freedom Friday.
Davis said police are particularly worried because, in some cases, violent offenders were prosecuted on drug charges instead of gun or violence charges. In many gun-related cases, he said, it is difficult to find witnesses willing to testify in court, so defendants are instead prosecuted on drug charges, which are easier to prove.
Boston police, along with the state probation and correction departments, have diverted staff to provide expedited reentry outreach, connecting the newly released with social service resources in the hope that they will stay out of trouble.
“When we realized this issue would create a huge logistical problem for us of people getting out, we needed to step up our efforts,” Davis said.
Even as police hope to be steer people away from trouble, Davis expects that there will be some problems.
“I can tell you this: People who start to reoffend come to our attention very quickly,” Davis said. “If we do find someone who decides to get back to their old life after this unusual situation, we will concentrate our efforts very quickly.”
Marcus Pixley, a Suffolk County drug defendant whose bail was reduced as part of the drug lab fallout, missed a court date and is now a fugitive from justice, officials said Thursday.
The office of Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley had objected last month to a reduction in Pixley’s bail, arguing that he was charged with selling cocaine to an undercover Boston police officer and was being prosecuted as a career criminal.
But at the request of Pixley’s lawyer, who had drawn a link between Dookhan and Pixley’s case, Superior Court Judge Christine Roach reduced Pixley’s bail to $1,000 cash from $5,000 cash. He made bail and was released last month.
According to court records, Pixley was convicted of rape in 1978. His record also includes convictions on seven separate drug distribution charges, assault and battery, and larceny.
A warrant was issued for Pixley’s arrest after he failed to appear at scheduled court hearings on Wednesday and Thursday. Now Conley’s office will push for violent offenders to remain in state custody.
“We’re judicious in our recommendations to the court,’’ Conley said in a statement. “But when a defendant has charges unaffected by the drug lab disaster, as this one did, we’re going to take those into account and argue against his release.”
Conley said the Suffolk district attorney’s office has assented to more than a dozen bail reduction and stays of sentences.
“One thing has become very clear,” Conley said. “The defendants who stand to benefit most from the DPH lab disaster aren’t low-level, nonviolent drug users. They’re moving large quantities of drugs, they’ve got long records, or they’re violent offenders.”
Veronica White, Pixley’s lawyer, said prosecutors overestimate their evidence against her client.
“The prosecution’s job is to make sure that justice is done, and an indictment based on evidence that has been contaminated simply doesn’t comport with the constitution,” White said.
On Tuesday, a Norfolk County judge allowed a convict once described in the Globe as a “walking crime wave” to go free on $50,000 bail because the drug evidence used to convict him was analyzed by Dookhan.
Mark L. Webb, who once shot at two police officers trying to arrest him, was allowed to post bail and ordered to remain at home and wear a monitoring bracelet.
David Traub, a spokesman for Norfolk District Attorney Michael Morrissey, said prosecutors are analyzing each potentially affected case to assess whether evidence not related to the drug lab is strong enough to make the case that a defendant should not be released.
“Even if at the end of the investigation and everything else, the drug charges are not viable, there are still gun charges there,” Traub said.
Webb’s attorney, Rosemary Scapicchio, said all the cases that have been tainted by the drug lab scandal should be thrown out.
If the criminal justice system did not work the way it was supposed to, Scapicchio said, then the defendants should go free.