We are still just scratching the surface from the fallout resulting from the mishandling of evidence in alleged drug cases at the crime lab in Jamaica Plain. At the very least, the crisis we’re now facing underscores the importance of strict protocols and controls in every aspect of our criminal justice system.
The massive effort to right the wrongs caused by what happened at the state drug lab is already underway. To his credit, Governor Patrick swiftly put together a central office to oversee the review of criminal cases potentially jeopardized by the mishandling of evidence. The office, headed by David Meier, worked throughout the weekend to identify cases where Annie Dookhan, the state chemist in question, performed primary or secondary tests. By Monday the estimate was that more than 1,100 individuals currently serving sentences in state or county houses of correction were affected. This number does not include individuals in federal custody, those awaiting trial, those on probation or parole, those who were previously convicted and served time, or those otherwise punished.
In the last few days, a handful of defendants has already been released from prison or had their sentences suspended. It’s expected that in the coming weeks there will be an onslaught of people who will be released from jail or face significantly lesser charges.
Calls are coming into the BBA’s Lawyer Referral Service on behalf of people imprisoned in drug cases. The Committee for Public Counsel Services has created a specific office to deal with the influx of cases. More information from CPCS can be obtained by calling their main number, (617) 482-6212.
What’s happening in Massachusetts is unprecedented because of the magnitude of the number of cases potentially impacted. However, this isn’t the first time that state drug or crime labs have had to be shut done because of mishandling of evidence. In 2008, the Michigan State Police shut down the Detroit Police crime laboratory because of a history of mishandling evidence. In 2009, a San Francisco lab technician, who is currently facing federal charges, was accused of stealing cocaine from the facility and a total of 1,400 cases were reviewed. More recently in Nassau County, New York, the state crime lab acknowledged mismatching reports on blood-alcohol tests, as well as possible contamination of drug evidence. The local district attorney worked with the Nassau County Bar Association to help inform inmates whether their cases were impacted. As many as 9,000 drug cases were reviewed.
It’s way too soon to assess what the impact will be on our justice system. But the scandal spotlights another important BBA public policy issue – the need to abolish mandatory minimum sentences. Currently, Massachusetts has a one-size-fits-all system of sentencing for drug crimes. Sentences are often disproportionate to the seriousness of the crime or the risk to the public.
With few exceptions, Massachusetts’ drug-sentencing laws are based on the weight of drugs involved, rather than what a defendant actually did.
This crisis is putting our criminal justice system to the test. While David Meier’s central office continues to work around the clock to identify those affected by what happened, it will be the justice system that determines whether or not we get it right.
Government Relations Director
Boston Bar Association