Drug offense cases are always interesting, in part because in order to secure a conviction in most of these cases, the Commonwealth must establish through expert testimony that the substance the defendant was accused of possessing was indeed a controlled substance.
Because of this an a ruling that was handed down by the SJC in the past couple of years (Commonwealth v. Melendez-Diaz, 76 Mass. App. Ct. 229, 2010), in order to prove that the substance in question was indeed the controlled (illegal drug that the prosecution claims, it must bring in the actual chemist from the state crime lab to testify in court as to what the substance is, and how the chemist arrived at that conclusion. The chemist must testify as to what chemical tests were conducted on the substance, what machines or methodology was used in the testing process, the nature and extent of his or her expertise, experience and education, and a number of other key areas of inquiry. Hence, the role of the state lab chemist in these types of cases, as well as their qualifications and integrity, is extremely important.
So it was very troubling to learn today that a chemist that is employed in just such a capacity for the state crime lab, was accused of intentionally mishandling and manipulating evidence and testimony in potentially thousands of drug cases that were prosecuted between 2003 and March of 2012, when the chemist involved reportedly retired from state employment. Work in the state crime lab in Jamaica Plain was officially suspended by Governor Deval Patrick yesterday (Thursday.) The 10 chemists who are employed in that lab have been placed on paid administrative leave until they can be placed elsewhere.
Media reports have indicated that multiple sources in the investigation have named the suspect in question as a Ms. Annie Dookhan, a staff chemist who worked for years at the state crime laboratory in Jamaica Plain. According to sources at the time of this post, apparently one or more of Ms. Dookhan’s colleagues altered authorities to instances in which Ms. Dookhan allegedly mishandled and manipulated evidence and her testimony in drug prosecutions that date from 2003 to March of this year when she retired. If this is true, justice may have been hijacked in those cases, possibly resulting in at least several hundred defendants being convicted of drug crimes they were not guilty of.
So far, it appears that this chemist acted alone in altering drug evidence in cases from cities and towns across Massachusetts. Potentially all of these cases that this chemist worked on and testified in may have to be re-tried. According to Massachusetts State Police Superintendent Col. Timothy Alben, “The ramifications and the reason that we are here today is the potential that we have people incarcerated and wrongly prosecuted.”
Just how important is the testimony is of the crime lab chemist who tests and examines the substance involved in any drug crimes case? He or she doesn’t just testify as to what the substance actually is or isn’t: They testify as to the amount or weight of the drug – and this is key in most drug cases. Why? Because both state and federal law penalties for drug offenses depend on how much of the drug the defendant might be convicted of. In state prosecutions in Massachusetts, a key number is often the number 14: Someone convicted of possessing 14 ounces or more of many controlled substances isn’t just “possession”- that person is convicted of the separate crime of drug trafficking. And that triggers extremely severe prison sentences.
As a Dedham, Massachusetts drug crimes lawyer, I can assure people that the news of this state drug crime lab investigation illustrates a point that should never be forgotten: All defendants, of whatever crimes they are accused, should be presumed innocent until proven guilty. Think about it: Possibly hundreds of people who may not have been legally guilty of he drug crimes they were prosecuted for, may have been sent to prison. Do the hard-liners still believe we should have mandatory sentencing now?