Annie Dookhan, the former chemist whose alleged misdeeds have freed hundreds of convicted drug dealers and cost taxpayers million of dollars, was driven to taint evidence by her desire to stand out at work, not because she was “black-hearted,” her lawyer said in court Friday.
Dookhan’s motivation for deliberately mishandling evidence at the now-closed Department of Public Health lab in Boston was a key issue raised during a hearing in Suffolk Superior Court, where Dookhan may soon plead guilty to 27 criminal charges, including eight counts of tampering with evidence.
Superior Court Judge Carol Ball, citing the erosion in public confidence caused by the drug lab scandal, held what is usually a closed-door lobby conference in open court, where Dookhan’s lawyer, Nicolas A. Gordon, argued that Dookhan should spend no more than one year in prison.
“Her motivation [was] to be the hardest working and most prolific and most productive chemist that she can possibly be, and that’s how this whole mess begins,” Gordon told the judge. “There is absolutely no malicious or black-hearted or evil criminal intent to be found anywhere in this case.’’
Assistant Attorney General Anne Kaczmarek told Ball that the extent of harm Dookhan did to individual citizens, the criminal justice system overall, and the public demands a much longer time behind bars, and she urged the judge to impose a five- to seven-year prison sentence. She estimated that Dookhan’s actions would cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars to rectify.
In a sentencing memo, the attorney general’s office stated, “The Commonwealth recognizes that its recommendation is outside the sentencing guidelines, which call for an incarceration range of 12 to 36 months.”
Ball said she will write out her proposed sentence and make it public next week, a procedure that will let Dookhan, 35, know how much prison time she will have to serve if she decides to plead guilty.
Speaking from the bench, Ball said it appeared to her that Dookhan was “somebody with low self-esteem who was trying to make themselves look cool.” She added, however, that even if that was the case, it did not excuse her actions.
Did she do it to “get bad guys off the street?” Ball asked Kaczmarek, who told the judge that investigators found no evidence to support the idea that Dookhan was a vigilante.
Prosecutors have said that Dookhan deliberately tampered with evidence so that substances would test as positive for drugs. A review conducted at the request of Governor Deval Patrick found that her actions may have tainted more than 40,000 cases. For fiscal year 2013, lawmakers set aside $30 million for Dookhan-related costs. According to the Patrick administration, $7 million has been spent on Dookhan-related expenses so far.
“The extraordinary damage is just incalculable,” Ball said.
About 600 people have been released from state prisons and county jails due to questions about the evidence that was used to arrest or convict them, officials said. A state chemist’s certification that a substance seized by police is actually an illegal drug is a key foundation of a criminal trial.
The Supreme Judicial Court said 862 criminal defendants and their lawyers have sought to undo their convictions, have pending charges thrown out, or have evidence thrown out because Dookhan may have played a role in their cases. The courts have held 2,635 hearings as a result, the SJC said.
Inspector General Glenn A. Cunha’s office is investigating how the lab operated overall, an inquiry that some lawyers have said could lead him to invalidate all cases based on drug testing at the lab dating back to the 1990s.
Both the Committee on Public Counsel Services and the Massachusetts Bar Association have challenged the reliability of testing done by the Hinton lab in Jamaica Plain, which handled some 190,000 cases before being closed last year and handed off to State Police.
Gordon told the judge that Dookhan was “a shell of her former self” whose “life has been destroyed.” He said her husband has left her and is living with another woman, and she has a 7-year-old disabled son with a medical condition.
Dookhan is the center of the boy’s universe, and she fears being separated from him, said Gordon. Tears rolled down Dookhan’s face as the lawyer spoke about her relationship with her son.
Ball explored the idea of demanding that Dookhan cooperate with investigators and disclose whatever else she knows about problems at the Hinton lab. But Assistant Attorney General John Verner, chief of Coakley’s criminal bureau, told the judge Dookhan cannot help because she cannot recall which cases she tampered with.
Among those sitting in the courtroom for the hearing was a Boston man who is hoping that the Dookhan connections to two drug cases, one from 2011 and one from 2007, will be wiped off what he said was a lengthy criminal record.
The man, who asked that his name not be used, said that after listening to Gordon, he understood Dookhan was someone who just wanted to impress her co-workers. But, he said, that should not excuse her actions.
“She should go to prison,’’ said the man, who said he has been incarcerated himself in the past. “She committed a crime. She’s a criminal. She tampered with evidence. What she did was wrong.’’
John R. Ellement can be reached at email@example.com.