Pattern of neglect at state drug lab found
An investigation by the state inspector general has found a pattern of neglect, mismanagement, and poor standards at the former Hinton drug laboratory in Jamaica Plain, where a drug chemist tampered with evidence in one of the worst criminal justice scandals in the Commonwealth’s history.
The 15-month investigation found that the chemist, Annie Dookhan, was the only “bad actor” at the laboratory, yet the pattern of negligence and poor management there has raised doubts about thousands of additional cases, said Inspector General Glenn A. Cunha.
“Annie Dookhan’s actions at the lab were unique,” Cunha said, adding, “That said, a lack of uniform protocols and procedures at the lab led to deficient practices.”
Among the deficiencies, the investigation found roughly 2,300 drug cases in which test results for evidence were inconsistent, and yet the possibly exculpatory information was never flagged for prosecutors and defense attorneys. Dookhan had been involved in many, but not all, of those cases.
The state Department of Public Health, which ran the laboratory until the extent of the malpractice was discovered in 2012, had failed to establish a chain of command for roughly 196 cases. Not all of them involved Dookhan.
The investigation also found more than 650 cases in which the inspector general’s office sought to retest drug samples, but the samples no longer exist. The inspector general recommended that each of those questionable cases should be carefully reviewed in criminal court matters.
Moreover, the inspector general recommended that investigators carefully review cases in which no valid statistical approach was used to determine the estimated weight of drug samples, and yet the weight was determined to be at the statutory threshold warranting a trafficking charge. That carries a more severe penalty.
More than 150 cases could be subject to such closer review.
Meanwhile, according to the review, the laboratory management failed to recognize the poor standards and Dookhan’s wrongdoing and, in some cases, overlooked it. The lab itself was not accredited, and performance evaluations had not been conducted since 2007. The policy manual had not been updated since 2004.
“The training of chemists at the drug lab was wholly inadequate,” the report said.
Governor Deval Patrick, who joined Cunha at a news conference Tuesday, said the review raised glaring concerns about the way the lab was run by the Department of Public Health. He said those concerns were allayed, however, when State Police took over the lab in 2012, which sparked the initial investigation into Dookhan’s wrongdoing.
“What was plain well before Annie Dookhan’s issues arose is that forensic work should not have been done in [the Hinton] facility; it should have been done in a crime lab,” the governor said.
Tuesday’s report, while painting the most detailed picture yet of the laboratory’s troubles, did little to help resolve what has been called a criminal justice scandal that continues to plague the state system.
Investigators have determined that Dookhan was involved in more than 46,000 cases at the Hinton laboratory from 2003 until her resignation in 2012. Her work was critical to the criminal justice process because she had to certify that drugs were an illegal substance.
The State Police investigation into Dookhan’s wrongdoing led to multiple state charges that she tampered with evidence by either mixing substances or falsely declaring their results. She also lied about her credentials while testifying in state court proceedings.
Dookhan was sentenced in late November to three to five years in state prison.
The scandal has also been a nightmare for the state court system, as defense attorneys have argued that all of the cases Dookhan was involved in should be dismissed. The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts has also asked the Supreme Judicial Court to use its authority to recommend dismissing all cases and forcing prosecutors to justify which cases should be retried.
The state’s high court is already considering several cases from Suffolk County that will ultimately determine what standards prosecutors and the courts should follow in determining whether a defendant should be entitled to a new trial.
“Just because [Dookhan] may have been the only overt actor, the only one who was doing something criminal, that doesn’t mean that everything else was fine,” said Anthony Benedetti, chief counsel for the state’s public defender agency. “The report found what we have been saying all along: The entire lab was a problem.”
Patrick and Cunha, while saying that every case that Dookhan was involved in as the lead tester should be reviewed, would only say, however, that all other cases should be reviewed individually, rather than overturned in a sweeping approach. The Hinton laboratory, at the time one of three drug-testing facilities in the state, handled more than 120,000 cases while Dookhan was there.
Jake Wark, a spokesman for Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley, said that the report justified his office’s decision to review cases individually, rather than taking a blanket approach.
According to the state Trial Court, Suffolk County is wrestling the largest caseload related to Dookhan’s work, as 362 defendants challenge the evidence in their cases, or 39 percent of a statewide total of 933.
Wark said that his office has agreed to roughly 300 stays of sentences for defendants since the Dookhan scandal broke. Of that number, 92 defendants have gone on to plead guilty to the crimes. An additional 84 have been arrested on new charges while free on those stays.
According to Cunha, more than 500 defendants have been released from state prisons because their cases were connected to Dookhan.
The scandal has taken a financial toll, as well: The state has already spent more than $18 million of the $30 million that the Legislature budgeted for the matter.