EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

September 12, 2012

Gov. Patrick: Prompt action needed on closed crime lab for sake of jailed defendants

By Andy Metzger
State House News Service

---- — BOSTON — Defense attorneys will need to team up with prosecutors as well as probation, parole and corrections officials to identify those whose convictions might be jeopardized by drug evidence under review in an unfolding crime lab crisis, Gov. Deval Patrick wrote in a letter this week to frustrated district attorneys.

Patrick’s letter, sent Tuesday, was in response to a letter the Massachusetts District Attorneys Association wrote seeking more information on cases that could be jeopardized by “breaches of protocol” in a chemist’s work analyzing and weighing drugs. State officials have provided prosecutors with a list of 60,000 drug samples handled by the chemist dating back to 2003 but tying those samples to actual cases has proved trying.

“[T]he District Attorneys have not been provided with any real information to guide us toward our overriding goal of ensuring that justice is done,” Worcester District Attorney Joseph Early and Cape and Islands District Attorney Michael O’Keefe wrote in a Sept. 6 letter. “In fact, due to the barebones nature of the enormous list we were given, we still do not know exactly how many actual cases these tens of thousands of samples correlate to or which of these samples connects to cases where someone is presently incarcerated and whose liberty literally hangs in the balance.”

In response, Patrick wrote that state authorities would need to work with the DA’s to determine “which samples pertain to defendants currently incarcerated,” and said the state would help prosecutors coordinate with others to match potentially jeopardized samples with defendants.

“We will assist in these efforts by creating a central office with a dedicated team for that task,” Patrick wrote. The governor also said he had asked for an investigation by Secretary of Health and Human Services JudyAnn Bigby into the problems and the “delay” in reporting those problems to him and to the state’s district attorneys.

The state’s criminal justice system was rocked Aug. 30 by the news that a chemist, identified by prosecutors as Annie Dookhan, had mishandled evidence from 2003 into 2012, a period in which she was involved in 34,000 cases.

The William A. Hinton Laboratory, located next to the Arnold Arboretum, was run by the Department of Public Health until this summer when it was transferred to the State Police to streamline testing for criminal cases.

“In preparation for the transfer of the lab, we started reviewing the operation of the lab,” said State Police spokesman David Procopio. That led to an investigation into a chemist, that now involves “looking into potential criminality” by her, Procopio told the News Service. The state shuttered the lab on Aug. 30.

According to the district attorneys, a past “violation of protocol” was reported several months after it occurred by DPH. “We cannot have a repeat of the episode in February 2012 where the Department of Public Health notified the Norfolk District Attorney [William Morrissey] by letter of a violation of protocol that had occurred in June of 2011,” the letter said.

O’Keefe told the News Service that he had no idea there were such massive problems with the lab until the night of Aug. 29 when the problem was briefly laid out ahead of a midday emergency meeting the next day with district attorneys and state officials.

“That’s when we learned anecdotally the scope of what was known about the issue at that time,” O’Keefe said.

According to the DA’s letter, after the June 2011 violation, DPH wrote that “the integrity of the tests was not jeopardized as a result of the procedural violation.”

“This information, we now come to know, was false,” the letter states. “That the District Attorneys litigated motions to suppress evidence tested at the DPH Laboratory based upon information provided by DPH that is now known to be false was not only a potential violation of the rights of defendants but an affront to the integrity of the State’s prosecutors.”

Patrick said that a backlog of 13,000 samples from the DPH lab referred to in the DAs’ letter have not been put on hold, and Secretary of Public Safety and Security Mary Beth Heffernan “has made arrangements to process these samples. The State Police Lab in Sudbury will handle future testing.”

O’Keefe said that the DPH lab in Jamaica Plain was used by prosecutors throughout eastern Massachusetts, and his office’s own attempts to detail the extent that jeopardized evidence was used in prosecutions has been time consuming, with one attorney spending all day every day on the project. In the letter, prosecutors also raised concerns about the cost of unraveling the problem.

“I am committed to working with you and the Legislature to obtain the necessary resources,” Patrick wrote, advising the state prosecutors to “agree on a course of corrective action” and then “seek whatever supplemental funding may be needed.”

Patrick on Monday said the crime lab problems were “very serious.” Asked about the costs of unraveling the problems and addressing them, Patrick said resources would “come from wherever it needs to come from . . . The important thing is to get it done and to get it done right.”

While the task is large, the prosecutors wrote that they are determined to create a full catalogue of the actions that allowed for such apparently extensive breaches of protocol.

“The injustices that have occurred cannot be corrected without a complete report detailing the precise nature and extent of the violations of protocol, procedure and supervision at the DPH laboratory,” the prosecutors wrote.