More signs of disarray in closed state drug lab
State investigators have found at least a half-dozen drug samples scattered about the state lab in Jamaica Plain, documents show, raising questions about the integrity of all testing where indicted state chemist Annie Dookhan worked.
Investigators for the state inspector general, who have been combing through the closed lab for months, found a plastic bag containing “a white rock substance” and test tubes “containing unknown substances” in one supervisor’s office. They found pills taped to a lab bench cabinet and old samples, including marijuana submitted in 1996.
The findings, in a confidential report by the attorney general, add fuel to defense lawyers’ arguments that virtually all drug tests done there since 2003 are suspect, expanding the number of cases that could be affected by the scandal from the 34,000 handled by Dookhan to the 190,000 cases processed by the entire lab.
A leading authority on crime labs said that failing to secure and track all evidence is a fundamental failure in a crime lab.
“In a good laboratory, it’s important to be able to maintain an intact chain of custody of all evidence,” said Ralph Keaton, executive director
of the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors/Laboratory Accreditation Board. “There’s no way you can track the chain of custody of anything found on the floor or taped to a desk.”
Keaton’s organization accredits the vast majority of federal, state and large local laboratories in the country. Unlike hundreds of other crime labs nationwide, including the Boston police crime lab, the Massachusetts lab was not accredited, meaning the chemists were not held to the most rigorous standards.
Dookhan is facing 27 criminal charges related to mishandling or falsifying drug evidence, as part of a massive review of cases in which she served as the analyst. Already, nearly 300 offenders have been released after evidence analyzed by Dookhan was questioned.
Matthew Segal of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts said the illegal drugs found lying about the lab reflects labwide problems that undermine the credibility of all drug testing there.
“If I didn’t know what I already knew about the lab — it wasn’t accredited, it lacked procedures, it didn’t keep the sorts of paperwork most labs would keep — I might be a little less alarmed,” said Segal.
“We already think that any defense attorney who handled any case in that lab involving evidence from any chemist since 2003 has grounds to file for postconviction release.”
But prosecutors said they believe the inspector general’s discoveries will not jeopardize cases handled by other chemists in the lab.
“People at my office aren’t overly alarmed,” said Norfolk District Attorney Michael W. Morrissey. “We can’t point to any cases that were directly affected. You’re trying to find out if the other shoe is going to drop. That’s everyone’s question. What they did or didn’t do. How bad is the problem? We’ll have to wait for the result of the forensic investigation.”
Jake Wark, spokesman for Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley, said that the samples that were discovered may have no bearing on cases that were actually tried. “They could be linked to closed cases or no cases at all,” he said.
Inspector General Glenn A. Cunha sent investigators to the drug lab in January and February as part of a sweeping investigation of the lab’s practices that is not expected to be completed until later this year. While Attorney General Martha Coakley is handling the criminal investigation, Cunha is looking at the lab’s procedures and whether problems extend beyond Annie Dookhan.
The investigators’ visits, described in memos written by State Police officials who accompanied them, found the lab exactly as workers left it on the evening of Aug. 29. The next morning, State Police closed the lab and did not allow employees back in.
The field reports contain little analysis, and it is clear, in some instances, that investigators did not know exactly what they found. For instance, investigators described finding three glass jars of samples that look like dried mushrooms, but did not say what the samples are.
Another photo showed what appeared to be a marijuana sample submitted by a Milton police detective, but there is no accompanying description.
It is clear that they found at least half a dozen samples of what appeared to be drugs that were not in the evidence room or some other secure place. For example, several test tubes containing “unknown substances” were in a desk drawer of former lab supervisor Charles B. Salemi. One of the containers was dated July 20, 1983.
Jack Meyers, spokesman for the inspector general, would not characterize the findings, but said the reports were evidence “that we’re doing a very meticulous and thorough investigation.”
The union that represents the 11 chemists in the lab, out on paid leave since the lab was closed, defended their expertise and said they are eager to return to work.
“Make no mistake, these people want to get back to work, preferably with the State Police crime lab,“ said Joe Dorant, president of the Massachusetts Organization of State Engineers and Scientists.
Dorant would not comment on the inspector general’s reports.
But defense lawyer Michael Tumposky said the inspector general’s discoveries should bolster the motion he filed for a new trial in a case that involved a chemist other than Dookhan at the Hinton lab.
“Who are the adults at this lab or was it a case of the inmates running the asylum?” said Tumposky. “You know there’s a problem when the guy who is supposed to be in charge has a bag of crack on his desk for no apparent reason.”