GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

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November 13, 2012

State's drug lab scandal hits home

SALEM — On an overcast morning, the tension is palpable inside Courtroom J, on the fifth floor of the J. Michael Ruane Judicial Center in Salem.

A clerk and two other employees are struggling to set up a video conference with MCI Concord, only to repeatedly see error messages on the television screen. They huddle and call in another employee.

Lawyers and prosecutors mill about the room, comparing cases and arguments as they check their watches. Family and friends of defendants sit in the gallery, waiting. One woman, the girlfriend of a defendant, worries she took a day off work for nothing.

In his chambers, Judge David Lowy is reviewing a stack of motions.

It’s the third time Lowy has presided over a special court session set up to accommodate what are likely to be dozens of motions for new trials in the wake of the state Department of Public Health drug lab scandal. Another session took place last Friday, and there will likely be many more to come.

Annie Dookhan, a chemist at the lab, is at the center of that scandal, after she admitted to investigators that she frequently made up test results, or tampered with drug samples to make them come out positive for the substances police believed they had seized.

DAs and defense

The Essex County District Attorney has received a list of 8,451 samples that passed through the Jamaica Plain lab, and has been compiling a list of cases with which those samples were associated. But in the meantime, defense lawyers are also going through their old case files, pulling up cases that may have involved Dookhan and filing motions they hope will get their clients out of jail.

Just after 10 a.m., the video conferencing system finally appears to be working, and an image of a table and chair in front of a cinder-block wall appears on the television screen. The video conferencing is one effort to save money on a process that is likely to cost at least $30 million, officials have estimated.

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