Pubdate: Fri, 22 Nov 2013
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2013 The New York Times Company
Author: Katharine Q. Seelye and Jess Bidgood


BOSTON - They were called "Dookhan defendants" and there were
thousands of them.

They had been arrested or sentenced on drug charges based on evidence
or testimony supplied by Annie Dookhan, an ambitious state chemist who
processed drug samples at triple the speed of her colleagues.
Officials say her ambition led her to perpetrate one of the most
far-reaching frauds in state history.

Prosecutors say Ms. Dookhan declared drug samples positive that she
had not bothered to test, tampered with evidence, forged signatures
and lied about her credentials to enhance her standing in court as an
expert witness. In all, her actions may have tainted more than 40,000
drug samples involving thousands of defendants.

Ms. Dookhan was caught in 2011 after forging a colleague's initials.
On Friday, she pleaded guilty to 27 counts, including obstruction of
justice, perjury and tampering with evidence, and was sentenced to
three to five years in prison, plus two years' probation. Her lawyer
had sought one year; prosecutors had asked for five to seven years.

When she arrived in court on Friday, Ms. Dookhan, 35, first showed
little emotion, staring straight ahead with her face set. But she
appeared to become upset as she answered the judge's questions with
"Yes, your honor," or "No, your honor," her voice halting and weak.
After pleading guilty, Ms. Dookhan was immediately taken into custody.

Her lawyer, Nicholas A. Gordon, has said his client was eager to prove
her worth, to be the best chemist on staff. But the consequences of
her actions "have been nothing short of catastrophic," Justice Carol
S. Ball of Superior Court in Suffolk wrote recently.

"Innocent persons were incarcerated," she said. "Guilty persons have
been released to further endanger the public, millions and millions of
public dollars are being expended to deal with the chaos Ms. Dookhan
created, and the integrity of the criminal justice system has been
shaken to the core."

The case against Ms. Dookhan took a long time to come

An audit of her work in 2010 found that she was processing cases at an
unusually fast clip. But auditors found nothing wrong. In June 2011,
however, Ms. Dookhan was caught forging a colleague's initials and was
suspended. Still, though she had been removed from her lab duties, she
continued to testify as an expert witness. She was not placed on
administrative leave until February 2012.

In August 2012, she admitted she had mishandled samples. As a police
report described it: "She became sad and a slight tear came to her eye
and she stated, 'I screwed up big time. I messed up. I messed up bad.
It's my fault. I don't want the lab to get in trouble.' "

She was first charged that fall with skirting proper lab procedures,
prompting district attorneys around the state to set up war rooms to
go through their cases and decide how to handle those in which she had
been involved.

"It's created essentially a whole new county's worth of cases that
have to be handled with the existing resources of our office," said
Jake Wark, a spokesman for the Suffolk County district attorney,
Daniel F. Conley.

In September, defendants started to be released, and in December Ms.
Dookhan was indicted by a grand jury on 27 charges, including evidence
tampering and obstruction of justice.

David Meier, a Boston defense lawyer hired by Gov. Deval Patrick, a
Democrat, to determine the scope of the scandal, said the cases of as
many as 40,323 people might have been tainted during Ms. Dookhan's
nine-year tenure.

More than 300 people have been released. One of the most recent was
Jamell Spurill, who had been jailed on drug charges. He was quickly
rearrested for possession of a stolen gun. When he was picked up,
prosecutors say, he told the police: "I just got out thanks to Annie
Dookhan. I love that lady."

Perhaps the most notorious case involved a man named Donta Hood, who
was serving time last fall for dealing cocaine. When he turned out to
have been a Dookhan defendant, he was set free. A few months after his
release, he shot a man during a drug dispute, and now Mr. Hood, 23, is
back behind bars, this time on charges of first-degree murder. He has
pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial.

At least 50 Dookhan defendants who had been released have been
rearrested. At least two were murdered when they were let out.
Thousands of other cases are in limbo.

When she was indicted, Ms. Dookhan pleaded not guilty. In negotiations
with prosecutors, her lawyers learned last month that if she changed
her plea to guilty, Justice Ball would sentence her to between three
and five years in prison - less than the five to seven sought by

In arguing for a longer sentence, Attorney General Martha Coakley
wrote to the court: "The total costs to rectify Dookhan's actions have
climbed into the millions with no end in sight, and the financial
aspect does not even address the loss of liberty of affected
individuals, the significant deleterious effect on the safety of the
public or the breakdown of public trust in the system."

But Justice Ball, in a decision last month, wrote that Ms. Dookhan
"presents as a tragic and broken person who has been undone by her own

When she appeared in court on Friday, Ms. Dookhan

While Ms. Dookhan heads to prison, the state is still reeling from the
fallout of her actions. The Hinton State Laboratory in Jamaica Plain
where she worked has been shut. Several people, including the state's
public health commissioner, have lost their jobs. The state inspector
general is still conducting his investigation into the scandal.

The state legislature has set aside $30 million for local prosecutors
to reinvestigate cases and see if they can charge the suspects based
on other evidence.

"That's just the tip of the iceberg," said Martin W. Healy, chief
legal counsel for the Massachusetts Bar Association. "The total costs
could reach $100 million over the years," he said. "No one
comprehended that this would snowball the way it has."