, Gloucester, MA

October 15, 2012

Activists urge releases in crime lab cases

From Wire and Staff Reports
Gloucester Daily Times

---- — Civil rights advocates this week called for the blanket release of all non-violent drug offenders convicted based upon evidence handled by discredited former drug lab chemist Annie Dookhan, and for the records of potentially thousands more felons to be expunged, conceivably from Cape Ann to Cape Cod.

As the fallout of the ongoing investigation into evidence tampering at a state drug lab continues, the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts and Families Against Mandatory Minimums wrote a letter to state Attorney General Martha Coakley and the state’s district attorneys, calling the case-by-case handling of convictions tainted by Dookhan in specially convened drug courts a waste of time and public resources.

Meanwhile, warning that hundreds of violent criminals with histories of drug trafficking could soon be released into city neighborhoods, Boston Mayor Thomas Menino and public safety officials announced plans to launch an emergency reentry program and put more police on the streets in preparation for the fallout of the ongoing investigation into evidence tampering at a state drug lab.

“It’s unfortunate that one person can cause such harm to the legal process and in turn such potential for harm to the neighborhoods in our city and state,” said Menino, who met with Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis, Suffolk County District Attorney Dan Conley, U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz and others to discuss the intervention plan.

Starting Friday in Norfolk County, “crisis re-entry teams” were scheduled to begin pre-release visitations with felons expected to be released as a result of the tainted evidence at the lab. Comprised of representatives from the Boston Police Department, district attorneys, the Department of Probation and Boston Centers for Youth and Family, the teams will case manage each individual released.

Officials in Essex County are also now wrestling with aspects of the crime lab scandal. While early indications suggested that the issue primarily focused on cases south of Boston, in Norfolk and Bristol counties, officials now say an estimated 8,451 drug samples from Essex County that may have been tainted by Dookhan’s involvement.

In interviews with state police, Dookhan has admitted to making educated guesses about samples rather than testing them, as well as to tampering with samples so they would turn out to be positive for drugs when initial tests came back negative.

“It’s mind-boggling,” said Carrie Kimball Monahan, a spokeswoman for District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett, whose office is now sorting through the list of samples that came from police departments in Essex County.

At the same time, so are defense attorneys. Of the 8,451 cases in this county, the vast majority involved public defenders or other court-appointed counsel, leaving the attorneys to pore over 7,000 cases. It is not clear how many, if any, of the cases are tied to Gloucester and Cape Ann.

The Salem Superior Court clerk’s office, which handles Cape Ann cases bumped upward from Gloucester District Court, has been fielding a spate of motions, including lawyers in pending cases seeking delays in trials, and lawyers for those already convicted seeking motions for new trials and stays of sentences being served.

There’s talk of a special session being created to handle all of the cases. Until then, said Monahan, prosecutors are handling the matters on a case-by-case basis.

In Boston, Suffolk County DA Conley called it a “myth” that corrections facilities are filled with low-level, non-violent drug offenders, suggesting that many of those who will be freed have histories of significant drug trafficking. “These are not young, low-level drug addicts we’re talking about. These are people with violent histories almost across the board,” he said.

The ACLU, however, said Coakley should work with district attorneys to dismiss all cases that do not involve charges for violent crimes or weapons offenses, that involve instances of police or prosecutors calling Dookhan directly at the lab to discuss test results, or cases for defendants in certain instances who have served at least half of their sentence.

“The spectacular failure of the Hinton lab is a reason to dismiss many of these cases, rather than to spend $100 million re-prosecuting them,” ACLU of Massachusetts Legal Director Matthew Segal said. “That expenditure of time and money would be a waste of both.”

Segal said the organization was not proposing a specific plan for how or when the prisoners would be released, but said the resources being spent to hear each of these cases in court, and the likelihood of subsequent litigation by defendants calls for a broader solution.

“We’re not proposing to decide all that for ourselves, but one of the key questions here is how is the commonwealth going to use its money and we think we’ll spend less money and spend it more intelligently if we can devote some of it to reentry programs and less of it to the hard slog of re-prosecuting cases for no particular benefits,” Segal said.

A spokesman for Conley said the argument shows a “fundamental misunderstanding of what’s going on in our courtrooms.” Spokesman Jake Wark said prosecutors are proceeding case-by-case, in many instances assenting to the release or reversal of convictions that were based on evidence now believed to be compromised.

“The alternative would be to ignore the facts of every case ,” Wark said, “and we’re not going to do that.”