GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

August 22, 2013

Tarr revives push for crime lab reforms

From Wire and Staff Reports
Gloucester Daily Times

---- — Armed with new figures showing that rogue chemist Annie Dookhan was involved in tainted evidence linked to the cases of 40,323 people, State Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr is urging his legislative colleagues to revisit a bill he filed in January outlining new oversight provisions for the entire state crime lab system.

Special counsel David Meier confirmed Tuesday that the number of people accused of drug crimes based on faulty drug evidence through Dookhan and Department of Public Health’s Jamaica Plain crime lab has surpassed the 40,000 mark.

Dookhan’s breaches of protocol have thrown thousands of convictions into question — including more than 8,000 cases in Essex County. Among the first of the Essex County cases brought up for a review hearing was a Gloucester man’s drug charges, which were allowed to stand as found and sentenced last November.

“The fallout of the egregious actions of forensic crime lab chemist Annie Dookhan directly correlates with the lack of oversight of the state’s forensic drug labs,” Tarr said Tuesday night. “In January, I filed legislation that would instill the necessary oversight, accountability, and transparency needed to ensure a system that demands integrity.”

The bill Tarr filed would require:

Quarterly reports from the undersecretary of public safety for forensic sciences that will include, but not be limited to, information regarding:

The volume of forensic services at each facility;

The volume of forensic services of each employee at such facilities;

The costs and length of time from submission for testing or procedures and the return of results from such facilities;

Compliance with accreditation standards of such facilities; and

Facility employee records, qualifications, and incident reports.

A minimum of one public oversight hearing per year for the board to receive testimony relative to the operations of state laboratories;

A system to receive complaints or tips about potential problems at a state laboratory via telephone and e-mail;

Certification that all state laboratories are accredited in accordance with the other requirements of the bill; and

The timely reporting of suspected or potential criminal wrongdoing to the Attorney General for investigation and prosecution.

“The price and consequences of this failure of oversight prove that we need an immediate hearing of this bill and its passage as soon as possible,” said Tarr, whose measure stalled in the Legislature last spring.

Meier, meanwhile, said Tuesday he could not speculate on “what’s going to happen in the court system” in the wake of the confirmed tainted evidence figures.

“To the extent that an individual believes that he or she may have been affected by Ms. Dookhan, what that individual has done, or presumably will do, is to contact his or her attorney, or contact the Massachusetts Bar Association, or contact the local district attorney’s office or contact the Committee for Public Counsel Services,” Meier said, “and it’s through the lawyers that the information is being distributed.”

The Hinton drug lab in Jamaica Plain was shuttered on Gov. Deval Patrick’s order last Aug. 30, and then-DPH Commissioner John Auerbach resigned in the face of the burgeoning scandal. The investigation has so far cost $7.6 million, according to the Office of Administration and Finance.

Meier said that, while the state initially released a list of Dookhan-involved cases estimated to include about 34,000 individuals, the team investigating the extent of the breach later determined the initial list included 37,500 names.

Meier and his team then tracked down an additional 2,800 individuals who were co-defendants and otherwise involved in cases where Dookhan had some involvement.

Last December, Meier announced 10,000 priority cases, which included 2,000 incarcerated individuals and others under probation or parole.

The Superior Court has so far held 2,600 hearings on those case, and the “vast majority” have been heard in district courts or Boston Municipal Court, Meier said.

The major transgressions by Dookhan, who has been dubbed a “rogue chemist” by state officials, was uncovered by Massachusetts State Police when they took over the lab last summer.

Dookhan allegedly identified drug evidence by sight, rather than through scientific tests, and would manipulate the evidence sample if a follow-up test didn’t match her visual analysis. Some defense attorneys have argued that Dookhan’s behavior at the lab should call into question all of the cases that were handled at the facility.

Meier said his task was limited to identifying the cases where Dookhan had involvement during a career that began in 2003. Meier said the list of the more than 40,000 defendants would not be released to the public as it contains sensitive information, though a fictitious example list would be distributed.

With the help of business consulting firm Navigant, Meier’s team analyzed about 3.5 million documents, “methodically turning over page by page as many laboratory documents as we could,” he said.