Lawyers Journal

MBA, others call for independent investigation in wake of alleged evidence mishandling at DPH lab

On Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2012, the Massachusetts Bar Association along with the Committee for Public Counsel Services, the Massachusetts Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts called on Attorney General Martha M. Coakley to appoint or call for the appointment of an independent investigator in the crisis involving the William Hinton State Drug Laboratory.

"As unimpeachable as the Office of the Attorney General is, an institution that prosecutes drug cases, supports the State Police unit that investigates drug cases and also supports drug prosecutions by district attorneys will be perceived as having a stake in the investigation's outcome," the letter states. Visit www.massbar.org to read the full letter.

Following the delivery of the letter to Coakley, the signing parties received multiple media inquiries. Comments from MBA Chief Legal Counsel and Chief Operating Officer Martin W. Healy were included in articles and segments featured in/on The Associated Press, The Boston Globe, Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly, State House News Service, WBZ radio, WBUR-FM and Channel 5 WCVB-TV.

Since news broke in late August of alleged mishandling of drug evidence by a chemist at the Department of Public Health's Drug Laboratory at the Hinton State Laboratory Institute in Jamaica Plain, the MBA has been actively working and meeting with state officials from the Gov. Deval L. Patrick Administration, Attorney General's Office, U.S. Senator John Kerry's office, courts and the Committee for Public Counsel Services to address the ongoing issues surrounding the crisis.

The association established an online resource center to assist practitioners representing affected clients. Members of the bar who have clients affected are encouraged to visit the MBA's online Drug Lab Crisis Resources Center at www.massbar.org/legislative-activities/drug-lab-crisis-resource-center.

"Providing access for counsel representing clients in thousands of cases affected, has been a priority of the MBA," said MBA Vice President Robert W. Harnais.

Reports indicate that the rogue chemist may have handled more than 60,000 samples with 34,000 cases potentially being impacted.

In addition to creating the online resource center, at the request of the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security, the MBA disseminated time sensitive information on access to database information to identify individuals whose cases may have been affected. The MBA followed those efforts with a training seminar in early October. Seminar materials can be found at the online resource center.

On Sept. 20, Gov. Deval Patrick announced his appointment of David Meier, a former Suffolk County homicide prosecutor and current partner at Todd & Weld, to lead the effort of reviewing the tens of thousands of cases that may have been affected by this evidence tampering (see related article on page 13).

A week following his appointment, Meier reported that 690 people were in state prison and 450 people are in county jails or houses of correction due to evidence that may have been mishandled at the lab.

The courts responded accordingly. "The Trial Court is ready and available to handle cases immediately," according to an Oct. 2, 2012 press release issued by the Supreme Judicial Court. The release detailed the creation of dedicated court sessions and named the assigned judges in the Superior, District and Boston Municipal courts to oversee the cases' prioritized processing.

For a list of sessions and judges, visit the MBA's online resource center at www.massbar.org/legislative-activities/drug-lab-crisis-resource-center.

News of the breach at Hinton State Laboratory first came at the end of August, with more details issued by the State Police in the first weeks of September. Annie Dookhan, a chemist who worked at the DPH drug lab for nine years, allegedly mishandled drug evidence used in criminal cases by altering the weight of drugs, not calibrating machines correctly, and manipulating samples to test as drugs when they were not. The Hinton State Laboratory was closed on Aug. 30.

©2014 Massachusetts Bar Association