Former state chemist Annie Dookhan pleaded not guilty in Suffolk Superior Court Thursday to 15 charges of allegedly mishandling and tainting drug evidence, including one case in which she claimed to have tested a drug sample that was not even in her laboratory at the time.
Dookhan, 35, is at the center of one of the largest law enforcement scandals in recent state history and her actions in the now-closed state drug laboratory in Jamaica Plain may affect tens of thousands of cases and cost taxpayers millions of dollars.
Dookhan faces charges that she intentionally mishandled evidence she was supposed to verify was illegal drugs, falsely claimed to have a master’s degree from the University of Massachusetts Boston, and perjured herself.
Dookhan has been free on $10,000 cash bail when she faced a preliminary round of charges and has also been under a 6 p.m. curfew. But her attorney Nicolas Gordon said in court that Dookhan’s social life had been hurt by the limitation and asked that it be set at 10 p.m., a request that was granted.
“It’s certainly putting a damper on her ability to have any kind of social life,” Gordon told Trial Magistrate Gary Wilson.
Dookhan stood before Wilson and in a soft tone uttered “not guilty” as a court official read the charges. She left the courthouse without commenting.
The indictments, involving 22 defendants overall, allege that Dookhan altered drug tests in six cases and improperly removed drug samples from the evidence room in another, forging a colleague’s initials to cover up her misconduct. She faces an additional 12 counts in cases from five other counties across Eastern Massachusetts.
Each count of tampering with evidence and obstruction of justice carries a sentence of up to 10 years in state prison. The single perjury count carries a sentence of up to 20 years in prison. Lying about her degree is a misdemeanor, carrying a sentance of up to 2½ years in county jail.
In papers filed in court today, Attorney General Martha Coakley’s office alleged that Dookhan certified she had completed testing on some drug samples, six months after the evidence was sent back to the investigating police agency.
During Dookhan’s nine years at the lab, authorities allege, a second chemist would test the same sample as Dookhan and come up with a different result.
When the samples were sent back to Dookhan, she allegedly tampered with them to make them match her results.
Dookhan worked for the Department of Public Health from 2003 until she resigned under pressure in March. She was the lab’s most productive chemist before she breached the chain of custody in June 2011 by removing 90 samples from the lab’s evidence room without signing them out.
She continued to work in the lab after the protocol violation, though she was barred from actual testing. And she continued to testify in cases almost until the day she was placed on administrative leave on Feb. 21.
Prosecutors, defense lawyers, and state officials believe her actions may have undermined tens of thousands of cases during her career, imposing an enormous cost to review and potentially retry many. Governor Deval Patrick has requested $30 million to manage the crisis.
Dookhan is due back in court Feb. 13, for a pretrial conference.