Some 34,000 eastern Massachusetts drug cases could go up in smoke in the wake of a still unfolding scandal around a state laboratory analyst who resigned under fire earlier this year. State Police have notified prosecutors that some 64,000 drug samples involving the cases may be tainted because of alleged misconduct by former analyst Annie Dookhan in conducting tests on substances submitted to her by them.
"The lab analyst in question had unsupervised access to the drug safe and evidence room, and tampered with evidence bags, altered the actual weight of the drugs, did not calibrate machines correctly, and altered samples so that they would test as drugs when they were not," the association wrote in a letter to its members.
Executive Office of Public Safety and Security spokesman Terrel Harris confirmed to the Boston Globe that Dookhan had "unsupervised access to the evidence lockup," but declined to address the other allegations in the association's letter, saying they were the focus of an ongoing investigation.
Dookhan's misconduct came to light after her coworkers at the Department of Public Health lab told State Police last year they would not testify under oath about the results of drug tests she performed. But there were signs going back years that something funny was going on.
In 2004, for instance, Dookhan whipped through some 9,239 samples while her colleagues averaged only one-third that number of drug tests. Last year, the Department of Public Health discovered misconduct by Dookhan, but downplayed it, telling law enforcement mistakes had occurred on only one day and had only affected 90 cases. The department also waited six months before alerting police and prosecutors to the problem.
The Dookhan scandal has left heads rolling in its wake. Last Thursday, state officials announced that the lab director, Dr. Linda Han, had resigned and the director of analytical chemistry, Julie Nassif, had been fired. Dookhan's direct supervisor now faces disciplinary hearings, too.
[Update: Now, more heads have rolled. On Monday, Public Health Commissioner John Auerbach fell on his sword, resigning with a public statement. It was clear there was "insufficient quality monitoring, reporting and investigating on the part of supervisors and managers" at the lab, which his department had overseen before it was transferred to state police as part of a budgetary realignment. "What happened at the drug lab was unacceptable and the impact on people across the state may be devastating, particularly for some within the criminal justice system." Auerbach said in the statement. "We owe it to ourselves and the public to make sure we understand exactly how and why this happened."]
Dookhan's fiddling with the drug evidence is so damaging because prosecutors have to prove that substances seized by police are scientifically proven to be illegal drugs and that they have not been tampered with between arrest and trial.
While the state has set up an ongoing conference of prosecutors, defense lawyers, court officers, and others to review the cases that might be affected, defense attorneys are already beginning to file motions for dismissal in pending cases and prosecutors in three counties -- Plymouth, Norfolk, and Suffolk -- have begun asking judges to reduce or eliminate bail requirements in cases where they have confirmed that Dookhan was involved in the drug testing. But prosecutors also vowed to try to convict if there is credible evidence.
"If someone is held or convicted on tainted evidence, we won't hesitate to take every appropriate step to bring the case to light and correct the record,’’ Suffolk District Attorney Daniel Conley said in a statement last Thursday. "But if there are credible facts and evidence to support the legitimacy of an implicated case, we'll work just as hard to ensure that the defendant is held accountable."