Island police expect limited impact from state drug lab scandal

Cocaine seized after an investigation by the Martha's Vineyard Drug Task Force in February was sent to the State Police crime lab in Sudbury. — File photo by Steve Myrick

This week, local and state officials continued to work to assess the damage growing out of a scandal at the now shuttered state crime lab in Jamaica Plain, which is at the center of a controversy over the mishandling of drug samples. Several Island police officials told The Times they are keeping close tabs on the developments, but they do not believe tainted evidence will affect any significant convictions on Martha’s Vineyard.

Aside from the legal repercussions, local police said they would not be surprised if it takes longer to get future test results, because the closing of the Jamaica Plain lab will shift more work to other labs, already handling a heavy load of drug cases.

The Martha’s Vineyard Drug Task Force, which prosecutes most drug cases on the Island, sends samples to the State Police crime lab in Sudbury, which has been unaffected by the scandal.

Oak Bluffs is the only police department on the Island that used the Jamaica Plain lab to test samples of confiscated drugs.

“We used that lab exclusively,” Lt. Tim Williamson said. “I imagine it would impact some of our cases.” The Oak Bluffs police department has reviewed some of its most significant drug convictions, including the conviction of Richard Morris, now serving a three- to six-year state prison term, Lieutenant Williams said.

Mr. Morris was convicted on drug and larceny charges in April 2011. He received probation on the drug charges. His jail sentence was for the second offense of receiving stolen property. After a check, Oak Bluffs police confirmed that the case was handled by a different lab, through the Martha’s Vineyard Drug Task Force.

Local district attorneys can expedite drug cases in special circumstances, but in most cases, it takes about a month to receive results. The closing of the Jamaica Plain lab has shifted a large number of drug cases to other state labs, including the one in Sudbury used by most law enforcement on Martha’s Vineyard.

“They went from being very busy to extremely busy,” Edgartown Det. Sgt. Chris Dolby, a member of the drug task force, said. “Everybody in the Northeast, Lawrence, Lynn, everybody goes to Sudbury.”

He anticipated that getting results will take longer, at least in the short term.

“I would expect it to be more time consuming,” Det. Sgt. Dolby said. “I think they might be able to shift some staff, put more people on. I think they’re going to have to.”

Laborious task

Since Gov. Patrick ordered the William A. Hinton Laboratory in Jamaica Plain shut down two weeks ago, state officials have been working with prosecutors, defense attorneys, the courts, and the departments of probation and parole to try to determine how chemist Annie Dookhan’s actions may have impacted the 34,000 cases she worked on since 2003.

Though officials have declined to detail Dookhan’s exact transgressions, prosecutors and defense attorneys have suggested the chemist may have altered drug samples to produce positive tests or increase their weights, the State House News service reported Monday.

Public Safety Secretary MaryBeth Heffernan said last week that officials hope to set up a “central office” to begin the effort of investigating the history of each sample. She said the state would look to hire someone outside of state government to lead the effort that could result in prisoners being released from jail or having sentences reduced.

In a telephone conversation Monday, Cape and Islands District Attorney Michael O’Keefe told The Times that his office is working diligently to review all the cases that could have been affected by state lab procedures and assess any damage.

He said it would be a monumental and laborious task to match case files with drug testing lists.

“We have almost 4,000 samples to go through,” he said. “We are plugging away at it. It is going to be very labor intensive and very costly to do it.”

Mr. O’Keefe said there is no other choice. It must be done, he said, to ensure that the system functioned properly. “We are very concerned with respect to the integrity of the criminal justice system,” he said.

The district attorney said there is the obvious issue that people may have been convicted based on evidence improperly certified by the lab. He said the primary concern is to get to those people as quickly as possible.

“It is a problem that the 11 elected district attorneys in the state take very, very seriously and we are going to extend the time and resources to look at each and every case,” Mr. O’Keefe said.

State officials have been tight-lipped about exactly what the chemist at the heart of the scandal did wrong at the crime lab to put so many past convictions in jeopardy. Mr. O’Keefe cited ongoing criminal and internal investigations for the lack of information.

The State Police have taken over the investigation into what happened at the crime lab, and last week State Police Colonel Timothy Alben said Ms. Dookhan had admitted to “several types of behavior.”

Resignation, firings

Public Health Commissioner John Auerbach tendered his resignation on Monday and accepted responsibility for the failed oversight of the state crime lab chemist accused of mishandling evidence at the Jamaica Plain lab, claiming “the buck stops with me.”

He is the latest and highest-ranking official to either resign or lose their job as a result of the unfolding crisis at the state crime lab.

“The behaviors of the drug lab chemist and the failure to properly manage and supervise her work are unacceptable,” Mr. Auerbach said in his statement. “But I know they do not represent the work of the rest of the staff at the Department of Public Health. My colleagues take seriously their responsibility to help make Massachusetts a better place to live and are as upset with what happened as everybody else.”

Lab Bureau Chief Dr. Linda Han resigned last Wednesday, while the director of the analytical chemistry division at the Department Public Health, Dr. Julie Nassif, was fired for her role in failing to properly oversee Ms. Dookhan’s work or immediately notify superiors.

The administration has also begun proceeding to fire Dookhan’s direct supervisor, who is a member of civil service.

Suspicion of the testing being conducted by chemist Annie Dookhan first surfaced in June 2011 when an evidence officer noticed that tests had been performed on 90 drug samples that had never been signed out of the evidence room, breaking the chain of custody.

Dr. Nassif was notified of the breach in protocol, but she did not immediately inform superiors at the Department of Public Health, according to a chronology provided by state officials. Days later, upon further inspection of the log book, officials found that Ms. Dookhan had added her initials and those of others to the sign-out sheet after the fact.

Though she was immediately removed from full-time testing duties, Ms. Dookhan continued to perform periodic testing and testify in court.