, Gloucester, MA

October 4, 2012

Our view: The mess in state crime lab

Gloucester Daily Times

---- — The legal mess officials say was caused by one chemist at a state crime lab will take years to sort out, and is already seeing some criminals set free as their convictions are overturned.

State officials say drug samples from 34,000 cases dating from 2003 to 2012 may have been mishandled by a chemist, Annie Dookhan, working at the lab in Jamaica Plain. That means the convictions based on those drug samples are now legally suspect. And while officials initially suggested the lab focus on cases in southeastern Massachusetts, it’s now apparent that perhaps thousands of North Shore cases are now in question. And there is nothing now suggesting that Cape Ann cases are immune.

This is nothing short of a disaster, a travesty of justice that is going to cost taxpayers millions and take years to resolve. There may well be some people in jail who were wrongly convicted. But it is also likely that some who are truly guilty will be set free as the evidence that convicted them is tossed out on appeal.

Already the confusion in the state lab is beginning to clog the courts. And, in addition to delays in existing cases, lawyers will be seeking to get retrials and appeals added to an already crowded court calendar.

District attorneys are still trying to get more information from the administration of Gov. Deval Patrick on which cases may have been affected by the faulty samples. It is an enormous task but one which must be completed quickly. Lives and liberty are at stake here.

State officials need to sort out this mess as quickly and efficiently as possible, and clear safeguards then need to be put in place that minimize the chances of a recurrence.

Judges and juries rely on results from state crime labs to help determine whether individuals charged with crimes are found guilty or innocent. And these tests must be conducted with great care and integrity to be scientifically valid and accurate, no ifs, ands or maybes ...