GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

October 9, 2012

Crime lab case threatens sentence reforms

From Wire and Staff Reports
Gloucester Daily Times

---- — BOSTON — Drug sentences from across Massachusetts that have recently been cut short because of questions over evidence tested by “rogue chemist” Annie Dookhan and the unfolding state crime lab drama could soon brush up against sentencing reform efforts on tap for the next legislative session.

It’s unclear how the drug lab drama will figure into sentencing reform talks, but one top Patrick administration official attempted last week to draw a bright line between the two topics.

“They’re totally separate situations, and I look forward to continuing the good work that we did on sentencing reform, and I know the Legislature’s committed to that as well,” Secretary of Public Safety and Security Mary Beth Heffernan told the State House News Service.

But even as lawmakers were hammering out an agreement on a sentencing reform bill in July — which included lower mandatory minimums for drug offenses and stricter sentencing for habitual violent offenders – Massachusetts State Police were getting ready to take over the Hinton Lab in Jamaica Plain, as part of streamlining included in the budget signed July 8.

After the Legislature rejected a Gov. Deval Patrick amendment that would have granted judicial discretion in sentencing habitual offenders, Patrick ultimately signed the bill with a vow to return in 2013 for more reforms.

“We must also get serious about reforming mandatory minimum sentences,” the governor had said a few days before signing the bill. “Like I said, the warehousing of nonviolent drug offenders has proven to be a costly failure. It does nothing to improve public safety, and it doesn’t deal with the substance abuse that is the source of the problem. States across the country are moving away from it, and we must, too.”

The crime bill was especially pushed by Cape Ann lawmakers Bruce Tarr, the state Senate Minority Leader from Gloucester, and by Rep. Brad Hill, the Ipswich Republican whose House district includes the town of Manchester.

Patrick signed the sentencing reform bill into law on Aug. 2 and five days later a State Police lieutenant interviewed a longtime employee at the Hinton Lab in Jamaica Plain about her concern that she “felt something wrong” had occurred in June 2011, when Dookhan took samples out of an evidence room without signing them out.

The new sentencing reform went into effect immediately, and Patrick has said it would make 600 nonviolent drug offenders eligible for parole. The law also reduces the reach of drug-sentence enhancing school zones.

However, since information about Dookhan violating testing protocols began seeping out starting in late August, the get-out-of jail ticket for drug offenders has been tying their case to the “rogue chemist.” The Boston Globe reported that more than 20 people have been freed in the wake of allegations about Dookhan’s improprieties at the drug lab.

Asked whether she was keeping track of the number of inmates freed over now-questionable evidence, Heffernan said, “We have a lot of different things we’re keeping track of. I don’t want to go on the record about what we’re doing or not doing. But we’re working carefully with the DAs, with the defense bar, and with the jail, sheriffs, the DOC obviously, and the courts, who are very important.”

Dookhan was arrested two weeks ago on two counts of obstruction of justice – for allegedly listing fake cocaine as testing positive as real cocaine – and another misdemeanor charge for allegedly lying about a master’s degree.

The fake cocaine was taken as evidence in a Boston Police investigation, according to authorities. But while officials initially indicated that the lab primarily handled evidence from cases in Suffolk and Bristol counties, it is not now clear whether some of the cases may stretch to Essex County and to Cape Ann, where Gloucester police have stepped up their fight against street sales of drugs, especially heroin, over the last two years.

The justice system has taken a new attitude toward defendants who were convicted based on evidence analyzed by Dookhan. Judge Carol Ball reduced the bail of Marcus Pixley from $5,000 to $1,000 because evidence in his case was handled by Dookhan.

Suffolk District Attorney Dan Conley objected to the bail reduction because Pixley had previously been convicted of rape and other crimes. The defendant failed to appear for a status hearing on Wednesday and still had not shown up in court on Thursday.

“A one-size-fits-all approach just doesn’t work when every case and every defendant is different,” Conley said in a prepared statement last week. “We have to look at the non-drug offenses on the docket, we have to look at the defendant’s record and whether he has prior defaults, and we have to look at the likelihood he’ll be convicted and serve time.

“We’ve assented to more than a dozen bail reductions and stays of sentences in the past month, including two when the defendants were present to plead guilty. We’re judicious in our recommendations to the court. But when a defendant has charges unaffected by the drug lab disaster, as this one did, we’re going to take those into account and argue against his release.

“One thing has become very clear: the defendants who stand to benefit most from the (Department of Public Health) lab disaster aren’t low-level, nonviolent drug users. They’re moving large quantities of drugs, they’ve got long records, or they’re violent offenders.”