Inmates go free over Mass. drug lab scandal
Judge lets them go free while legal challenges are processed; state lab chemist's alleged misconduct could lead to release of many dangerous criminals
By Denise Lavoie
BOSTON — One at a time, the prison inmates sat down at a wooden table, linked by videoconference to a Boston courtroom, where their attorneys and prosecutors explained the role a disgraced chemist played in their criminal cases.
One by one, the judge agreed to let them go free while their legal challenges make their way through the courts, placing their sentences on hold and setting bail.
The fallout from a scandal at a state drug lab played out in court Monday, as Judge Christine McEvoy began hearing what is expected to be nearly 200 legal challenges in Suffolk Superior Court drug cases.
The chemist, Annie Dookhan, 34, of Franklin, has been charged with obstruction of justice and accused of skirting protocols and faking tests results at a former Department of Public Health lab. The Boston lab was closed by state police in August after Dookhan told them she had faked test results, forged paperwork and sometimes mixed samples. She has pleaded not guilty.
The scandal has put thousands of criminal cases in jeopardy. Dookhan tested more than 60,000 samples covering about 34,000 defendants in her nine years at the lab, according to state police.
Monday was the first day of a two-week special session set up to hear challenges in Suffolk Superior Court, which covers Boston. Similar sessions have been scheduled in courts around the state. The first sessions were held in Boston Municipal Court earlier this month.
The assembly line-style of hearing cases via videoconference made for some unusually casual moments.
After the judge greeted the first inmate, he responded, "How ya doin'?"
The judge told another defendant she would set bail at $1,000 and asked him if he agreed to the terms of his release, including GPS monitoring and an overnight curfew. The inmate responded, "Yes, I'm OK with that."
During the morning session, McEvoy granted defense motions to place sentences on hold and set bail for about 10 inmates now serving time at the state prison in Norfolk. Prosecutors agreed to those motions after producing drug analysis certificates showing that Dookhan was the chemist who performed either an initial test or a second confirmatory test on the substances.
In several cases, Assistant District Attorney Paul Treseler requested cash bail of $10,000 or $15,000, noting that the defendants had long criminal records and histories of violating their probation or failing to show up for court. In most cases, McEvoy set lower bail than the amounts sought by prosecutors but higher than the amount requested by defense attorneys.
The judge made it clear that the cases against the inmates were not over. She ordered all of them to appear in court for a status conference next month.
Dookhan and her attorney have repeatedly declined to comment on the charges against her. Last week, she invoked her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and refused to testify at a drug defendant's trial.
Some defense attorneys said they believe many of the cases could eventually be dismissed because allegations that Dookhan mishandled samples have made the evidence at the heart of their cases unreliable.
James Greenberg, who represents a 26-year-old convicted of distributing cocaine and now serving a three-year sentence, told the judge, "I don't know how this case ever gets tried."
McEvoy set the man's bail at $1,000 and ordered him to be monitored by GPS and to not leave his home between 10 p.m. and 6 p.m. She ordered him to report back to court on Nov. 15.
"I think a lot of these cases are in trouble, and cases will be dismissed," Greenberg said after the hearing. He said he believes all drug cases in which Dookhan participated in testing should be thrown out if the defendants do not face other charges.
"We know she's manipulated drugs, so anything she's touched is tainted," he said.
Suffolk District Attorney Dan Conley acknowledged that wading through each of Dookhan's cases individually will be "a tedious and lengthy process," but he said the circumstances of each case must be considered.
"Most of these individuals have lengthy criminal records with histories of violence as well," he said. "We are concerned about their liberty issues, but we have to be concerned about public safety."
Anthony Benedetti, chief counsel for the Committee for Public Counsel Services, which represents indigent defendants, said he objects to that description, saying many are low-level nonviolent offenders and others might be innocent.
"The process of identifying the thousands affected by this miscarriage of justice is ongoing and the facts to substantiate such characterizations are not yet available," he said.
Copyright 2012 Associated Press
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