Former prosecutor to head drug lab case review
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
Former Suffolk County prosecutor David Meier will lead a new central office set up to review the thousands of criminal cases potentially tainted by a state drug lab chemist.
Meier was introduced by Gov. Deval Patrick Thursday and said he would begin meeting Friday morning with prosecutors, defense attorneys and others involved in the state’s review of the 60,000 drug samples handled by chemist Annie Dookhan since 2003 at the now closed state drug crime lab in Jamaica Plain.
Patrick said Meier was “uniquely suited” to identify cases that may have been impacted by Dookhan’s mishandling of evidence, and expressed confidence that the trial attorney would bring an “independent and objective voice” to the process.
“The breakdown at the DPH drug lab is serious and its potential impact on justice and individual cases is deeply troubling to all of us,” Patrick said at a press conference outside his office with Meier and Public Safety Secretary Mary Beth Heffernan.
The administration is in the process of identifying office space at One Ashburton Place, a state government office building, for Meier’s team to begin working. Meier will be paid the equivalent of a Cabinet secretary’s salary – roughly $150,000 a year, or $12,500 a month – for the duration of this work.
Patrick said that at his request Attorney General Martha Coakley’s office has also begun a broader review of the drug analysis unit at the Hinton Laboratory to determine whether any failures at the lab impacted the results of cases beyond those 34,000 cases handled by Dookhan.
In a letter to district attorneys and public defenders, Coakley said she had appointed the chief of her trial division, Helene Kazanjian, to lead the review and will hire independent forensic experts to assess the reliability of testing results from the drug lab.
The attorney general’s case review is separate from the criminal investigation her office and the State Police are undertaking that could lead to charges being brought against Dookhan or her supervisors for the role they played in the mishandling of drug evidence.
The central office will be responsible for cross referencing case files from prosecutors and defense attorneys with drug samples and other information from DPH, the Trial Court, the departments of correction, probation, parole and youth services, the Federal Bureau of Prisons, the U.S. Attorney’s Office and other federal agencies. Patrick said priority will be given to defendants currently incarcerated.
Patrick is also identifying additional spending requirements that could include paralegal staff, and he plans to file a supplemental budget request with the Legislature. The governor said some district attorneys and the Committee for Public Counsel Services have expressed concerns about the impact additional work could have on their budgets.
Dookhan, who worked for the Department of Public Health for nine years before resigning in March, allegedly tampered with drug samples to alter their weights or produce false-positive tests, according to prosecutors and defense attorneys.
Lab supervisors discovered in June 2011 that Dookhan had performed drug tests on 90 evidence samples without signing them out, and then added her initials and others’ initials to the sign-out book after the fact. The supervisors removed Dookhan from full-time testing, though she continued to perform periodic testing, and did not inform DPH authorities until December, when a DPH investigation began.
Heffernan reiterated that in her time at the lab Dookhan handled about 60,000 samples from 34,000 criminal cases. Patrick said at this point he does not believe that list will expand: “The chemist had her own set of rules,” he said.
First Assistant Attorney General Edward Bedrosian Jr., in his letter to Worcester County District Attorney Joseph Early and CPCS Chief Counsel Anthony Benedetti, said investigators believe Dookhan was acting alone. Officials have not speculated on a motive.
“We have received cooperation from current and former employees of the laboratory and at this time we do not have reason to believe other chemists were involved in similar alleged misconduct,” Bedrosian wrote.
Meier said he was not working on any timetable, though administration officials estimated it would take at least several months to match the samples handled by Dookhan with specific criminal cases and determine whether the outcomes of those cases were impacted.Meier spent 12 years as the chief of homicide in the Suffolk District Attorney’s Office supervising the investigation and trials for all Boston homicides. In 2007, Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly named him lawyer of the year, citing his work “behind the scenes to seek justice for victims and their families, as well as those who had been wrongfully convicted.”
A graduate of Amherst College and Boston University Law School, Meier is also a fellow of the American College of Trial Attorneys and trustee of the New England Innocence Project. He joined Todd & Weld in 2008. According to his resume, he’s co-chair of the Boston Bar Association’s Task Force to Prevent Wrongful Convictions.