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New development may throw thousands more drug lab cases into question

The William A. Hinton State Laboratory Institute, which houses the Massachusetts state drug lab, in Jamaica Plain.
The William A. Hinton State Laboratory Institute, which houses the Massachusetts state drug lab, in Jamaica Plain.ASSOCIATED PRESS/Associated Press

A consultant warned the state in 2013 that seven other chemists — in addition to the disgraced Annie Dookhan — should be investigated at the state drug laboratory in Jamaica Plain, e-mails released Monday by a Middlesex Superior Court judge show.

The e-mails from Michael J. Wolf, a forensic scientist and former FBI official who advised the state in its probe of the drug lab fiasco, underscore festering questions about how thoroughly the state reviewed the work of other chemists at the lab — which defense lawyers said could affect the legitimacy of the evidence used in thousands more successful drug prosecutions.

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To date, at least 61,000 drug charges in 35,000 cases have been dismissed in Massachusetts due to misconduct by Dookhan at the William A. Hinton lab and former chemist Sonja Farak at the state lab in Amherst.

The inspector general’s office said in a statement Monday that it completed a comprehensive review of testing at the lab, in accordance with Wolf’s advice. But the office declined to say exactly what that review entailed, and it has previously given conflicting statements about the extent to which it examined the work of Hinton chemists other than Dookhan, who was released from prison in 2016 after serving a three-to-five-year sentence.

The office said in March 2014 that Dookhan was the “sole bad actor” at the lab following the agency’s “exhaustive review” that included determining if “chemists, supervisors or managers . . . committed any” misconduct. In a statement Monday, the office seemed to confirm it conducted that kind of scrutiny of other chemists.

“In his e-mail, [Wolf] recommends that we apply the same process to review several other chemists’ work as we used to examine Dookhan’s work,” the statement said. “We followed his recommendation.”

But in a court filing last year, the agency acknowledged it had not conducted an “in-depth investigation into Farak or any other individual” at the lab.

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Wolf could not be reached for comment.

The inspector general’s conflicting descriptions of its investigation led Supreme Judicial Court Associate Justice Scott L. Kafker to note last year that the agency appeared to be “distancing itself” from its original statements about the scope of its $6.2 million probe.

“Notwithstanding the statements in its March 4, 2014, report, it explains that it did not seek to determine whether anyone (other than Dookhan) engaged in any misconduct or malfeasance in the lab,” Kafker wrote.

The release of Wolf’s e-mails this week led defense attorneys to question the reliability of all Hinton tests.

“Everything at Hinton should be considered suspect,” said defense attorney James P. McKenna, who estimated that the accuracy of some 89,000 additional drug tests administered by the other seven chemists may now be in question.

McKenna represents Eugene Sutton, who was convicted of heroin possession in 2006 on the basis of evidence tested at Hinton by Farak. Farak tested as many as 11,000 Hinton samples, including over 2,200 she completed even after transferring to the Amherst lab in 2004. Sutton is currently incarcerated on probation violations for dropping out of a treatment program and for subsequent heroin charges.

Justice Kafker last year agreed with a previous lower court ruling stating that Farak’s Hinton work should have been reviewed. Other judges have also questioned the scope of the state’s drug lab probe.

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In 2017, Superior Court Judge Richard J. Carey noted in a ruling sharply critical of the state’s handling of the drug lab crisis that Farak began using alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, ecstasy, and heroin during her doctoral studies in the spring of 2000, before she began working at Hinton.

Yet, as of late April, there had not been a “detailed investigation into Farak’s performance as a chemist in the Hinton lab,” wrote Judge Michael D. Ricciuti in the Sutton case which prompted the release of Wolf’s e-mails.

The e-mails were released to Sutton by the Middlesex district attorney’s office during discovery.

In its statement Monday, the inspector general’s office insisted it has consistently said that it conducted a thorough review of the lab.

“None of this is new,” the office said. “As we said in our report and in every occasion since, we conducted a top-to-bottom, data driven review designed to detect malfeasance and misfeasance that related to the reliability of testing at the Hinton Lab. We followed the evidence wherever it led.”

Attorney Christopher Post, who represents clients convicted with Hinton-tested drugs, said the inspector general’s office should be questioned under oath about whether it might have withheld potentially exculpatory evidence from defendants.

“We don’t know what is going on here,” he said, “but there is very, very damning evidence they knew there was a problem with the other chemists.”

To date, in what has been described as the biggest criminal justice scandal in Massachusetts history, only Dookhan and Farak, two low-level state employees, have been prosecuted and their combined prison sentences amounted to less than seven years. Farak has also been released.

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In addition to tens of thousands of convictions being dismissed, the state may have to reimburse wrongfully convicted defendants up to $10 million in court fees, fines, and other costs.

The new e-mails “raise serious questions about the integrity of the work done at the Hinton lab going well beyond Dookhan,” said Matthew R. Segal, legal director for the ACLU of Massachusetts. “The questions are only more acute now.”