BOSTON (State House News Service) - As law enforcement officials gather lists of drug cases where evidence could have been tainted by a chemist under investigation, defense attorneys are questioning why state officials failed to catch the problem sooner and why prosecutors said there was no reason for concern when they tried to protest the chemist's involvement in drug cases.
One high-profile Boston defense attorney called the closing of a state drug testing crime lab a "colossal" failure of the entire system that allowed a chemist to improperly handle drug evidence without it being detected by her supervisors. In the wake of the investigation, State Police suspended a supervisor and the Department of Public Health suspended a division director.
"There is some sort of colossal break in the system that goes far beyond this one individual," said Boston defense attorney Rosemary Scapicchio. "How did the system set up to catch this not catch it? How is it there such a colossal failure of this system so this woman could get away with this for seven years? The procedures in place can't be being followed."
"The real story is the failure of the system to catch something like this," she added.
Prosecutors and State Police have said they are "furious" that there could be "miscarriages of justice" and people wrongly convicted because of the chemist's alleged actions at the Hinton State Laboratory in Jamaica Plain. State Police last Thursday closed the lab down indefinitely after uncovering potentially thousands of cases, spanning seven years, that could have been improperly handled by a chemist who resigned in March. State Police and the attorney general's office are investigating whether any criminal charges will be filed, State Police spokesman David Procopio said Tuesday.
State Police are still in the process of compiling lists of samples handled by the chemist in question, according to Procopio. The chemist was responsible for analyzing drug substances, and indicating the weights of the drugs. The cases are mainly from Suffolk and Norfolk County, with some from Bristol County and the Cape and the Islands, State Police said.
Cape and the Islands District Attorney Michael O'Keefe said DAs around the state spoke with state officials via telephone Tuesday, and plan another telephone meeting among themselves Wednesday. O'Keefe said the process of reviewing impacted cases is labor intensive, and there "will be costs associated with it."
"It is going to be difficult," he said.
O'Keefe said it will take a few more days before law enforcement officials fully assess the impact and the number of cases involved.
O'Keefe said the primary concern among district attorneys is the "integrity of the criminal justice system. We are going to do everything we can to promote that end. It is premature yet to say exactly what form that will take."
"Clearly the greatest concern is that someone was convicted of a crime based on evidence that wouldn't support conviction," said Jake Wark, a spokesman for Suffolk County District Attorney Daniel Conley. "Our deep concern is that defendants were convicted unfairly."
Scapicchio said defense attorneys around the state were concerned about the chemist's involvement in criminal cases for the past several months.
In February 2012, the Norfolk District Attorney's Office was notified by the Department of Public Health that it was investigating questions about the chain of custody of evidence for a single day in June 2011 involving 90 samples in 60 cases, according to David Traub, a spokesman for Norfolk District Attorney Michael Morrissey. The Norfolk DA immediately shared the information with defense attorneys. "We made it clear to them as soon as we knew it," Traub said.
At the time, state officials were looking into the actions of a single chemist who conducted tests on samples that had been appropriately signed out by an evidence officer, Traub said.
After the commonwealth came forward informing defense attorneys they were looking into the actions of the chemist, defense attorneys from different parts of the state began filing motions for evidentiary hearings anytime the chemist under investigation was involved in a drug case, Scappicchio said. State prosecutors would argue the cases were limited to Norfolk County, and they were an isolated incident on one day, she said.
"The courts would say you can't relate it. You need to go forward and try this case without an evidentiary hearing," Scapicchio said. "Defense attorneys were losing these motions routinely."
Scapicchio said she and other defense attorneys want to know how the system failed to catch any discrepancies.
"I don't think the answer is let's re-test the drugs and go on. If we don't know how the system failed we can't be sure of any the results of these so-called scientific tests," Scapicchio said.
Copyright State House News Service