A few years ago, Meier took his activism a step further. With Marty Murphy, he led a Boston Bar Association task force that took a deep look at how to prevent wrongful convictions. The task force proposed a new law to allow prisoners post-conviction access to DNA evidence; Massachusetts was one of only a handful of states that did not, by law, grant them that right. The bill passed the Legislature in February and the governor signed it into law.
Donnell Johnson, for one, isn’t willing to sing Meier’s praises. Johnson, now 34, is living in Baltimore, where he was recently laid off from his job with U-Haul. After his release from prison, Johnson went on to earn a college degree with honors. Still feeling burned by the Massachusetts criminal justice system, he hopes to go to law school, to turn his experience into something positive. Of Meier, Johnson says: “He did the right thing by going forward, but he had no choice. Don’t read my case like he did me a favor.”
IT’S A DANK FRIDAY evening. The workweek is over. Downtown is emptying out. Meier isn’t quite ready to go home. He lets me into what they call the war room or boiler room. It is here, under fluorescent lights in a nondescript conference room near Beacon Hill, amid bags of M&M’s, jars of peanuts, and a bank of computers, that Meier and his team are trying, bit by bit, to unravel the drug lab tangle.
He works alongside representatives from the State Police and the state Executive Office of Public Safety and Security, support staff from the Patrick administration, and one of Meier’s associates from Todd & Weld. And it’s a slog: scouring lists and documents for the names of defendants whose drug samples might be compromised, figuring out who’s in custody where, and prioritizing the most urgent cases.
As we discuss the enormity of the task, I’m struck by how Meier, despite the thousands of names and details and problems rolling through his mind on this Friday night, can still rattle off facets of homicide cases from years ago — the fingerprint on a coffee mug, the sweat shirt left in a kitchen. It’s all cataloged up there under his trademark dark shag, which wouldn’t be out of place on a Strat player in a bar band.
In conversation, Meier, who is a stocky 5 foot 10, is chatty and informal but a stickler for accuracy. Even slight mischaracterizations or misstatements — out of my mouth or his — he feels compelled to correct. “Strike that,” he says after uttering something he wants to phrase differently.
Like many prosecutors, Meier prefers to keep his family life private. Socially, he likes to hang around law enforcement types. “You go out with the guy and he’s always meeting like four Lowell cops in a bar,” Jim Rehnquist says. About the only personal criticism of Meier I hear from anyone is that he has a habit of promising to call and then never does.
On the drug lab scandal, Meier is responsible for one piece. Attorney General Martha Coakley is leading a criminal investigation into Dookhan, who, as of late November, had pleaded not guilty to two counts of obstruction of justice and one count of falsifying her academic record, charges that could bring more than 20 years in prison. The state inspector general, Glenn Cunha, is conducting a broad review of what went wrong at the lab. But it falls to Meier to begin fixing the damage that’s already been done — to ensure the accused and convicted are granted their constitutional right to due process. “The goal,” Meier says, “is to do everything we can to ensure that the criminal justice system gets it right.” It’s clear that Deval Patrick, who had ultimate authority over the troubled facility, is keeping close tabs on the fallout.
Key players in the process want to get it right, too, but they have their concerns. For Ed Davis, one fear is that a raft of inmates may be released from prison earlier than expected. That’s why Boston’s police commissioner wants to make sure adequate reentry programs are in place. “There’s a real balancing act that we’re trying to accomplish here, by trying to be scrupulously fair to people who have had their rights violated, but also,” Davis says, “making sure we’re keeping the community safe.”
One glitch so far, says Michael O’Keefe, the district attorney for the Cape and Islands and president of the state District Attorneys Association, is that the drug lab data have been less complete than anticipated. After the scandal broke, he says, his top deputy and IT director were sitting in a room nine hours a day trying to build their own database of affected cases, which O’Keefe says could number 4,000 to 5,000 in his jurisdiction. (The other affected counties include Middlesex, Suffolk, Plymouth, and Essex.) The hope is that collecting names and cases from multiple sources will yield a master list from which all parties can work.Continued...