11/29/2012

200 inmates released as result of drug lab scandal

While investigators are looking at about 34,000 cases overall, 195 individuals have been released, 79 in Boston

By Steve LeBlanc
Associated Press

BOSTON — Nearly 200 inmates have been released from prison and their cases put on hold as a result of a Massachusetts state drug testing lab scandal.

Public Safety Secretary Mary Beth Heffernan told lawmakers at a public hearing Wednesday that while investigators are looking at about 34,000 cases overall, 195 individuals have been released, 79 in Boston.

Heffernan said their release doesn't mean they have been exonerated. She didn't say what kinds of crimes they had been convicted of, but said they could be under alternative forms of supervision as they await future court hearings to resolve their cases.

An aide to Heffernan later declined to release any information about the past convictions, citing the state's criminal offender record law. A handful of those released have since been re-arrested.

Heffernan said the administration is "committed to ensuring that each individual's case is reviewed completely to ensure that justice has been administered properly."

The hearing comes as authorities continue to deal with the fallout from a scandal that threatens to unravel thousands of criminal cases after a Massachusetts chemist was accused of faking drug test results.

On Tuesday, officials said Gov. Deval Patrick has ordered a "file-by-file review" of every case handled by the chemist, Annie Dookhan, who investigators said manipulated drug samples at a former Department of Public Health drug lab where she worked for nine years.

The drug testing lab, which was overseen by the Department of Public Health, has since been closed. It's testing has turned over to the state police.

At Wednesday's hearing, Health and Human Services Secretary JudyAnn Bigby said the lack of national accreditation at the lab was one factor that contributed to its troubles.

Bigby also said the fact that Dookhan performed so many more tests than other lab workers _ sometimes working evenings and weekends _ should have been a red flag.

"She was viewed as a hard-working employee who did what she could to get the testing done," Bigby said, adding that Dookhan didn't profit monetarily from such high productivity.

"I can't speak to Annie Dookhan's motives," she added.

Heffernan said the state has an overall backlog of 10,300 cases that require drug testing. She is requesting $3.4 million to close that gap. The money would go to hiring more personnel and updating equipment.

It could take up to two years to clear the backlog, Heffernan said.

Heffernan noted that the state's nine police labs have all been accredited by the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors. As part of the accreditation process, the labs review employee productivity on a monthly basis.

"These monthly reviews are just one example of that would have been provided early detection that Ms. Dookhan's unusually high output was cause for concern," Heffernan told lawmakers.

Rep. Harold Naughton, House chairman of the Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security, said the case is particularly troubling because it could jeopardize so many criminal convictions.

"We were supposed to be able to count on the work of our scientists," he said. "Science was supposed to be the easy part."

Bigby and Heffernan said some answers will have to wait until ongoing investigations into Dookhan are complete.

Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley's office is conducting a criminal investigation, while state Inspector General Glenn Cunha is reviewing whether the problems at the lab went beyond Dookhan and her immediate supervisor.

David Meier, a former state prosecutor appointed by Patrick to identify cases Dookhan worked on, said Tuesday that his team has identified about 10,000 people whose drug cases were potentially affected by the alleged misconduct.

The group initially focused on identifying about 2,000 people who were already in prison or in custody awaiting trial in cases in which Dookhan tested drugs. Those cases have been making their way through the courts in special sessions set up to handle the large number of legal challenges.

Dookhan, who is free on $10,000 bail, hasn't responded to repeated requests for comment.

Patrick has filed a supplemental budget of $30 million to begin covering the costs of the investigation.

Copyright 2012 Associated Press

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