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Drug lab scandal: is this how prosecutors treat their own?

Posted by Carol Rose, On Liberty  December 21, 2012 11:06 AM

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When it comes to tracking down wrong-doers, you can always count on Massachusetts prosecutors to doggedly pursue every lead until they get their woman or man.

Except, it seems, when the suspected wrong-doers are the District Attorneys themselves.

How else can anyone explain reports that at least some prosecutors have long known about Hinton Lab chemist Annie Dookhan's abandonment of her role as a supposedly neutral chemist? According to emails made public today by Boston Globe investigative reporters Andrea Estes and Scott Allen, Dookhan "coached assistant district attorneys on trial strategy and told one that her goal was ‘getting [drug dealers] off the streets.'"

Dookhan was so cherished by prosecutors that when she was unavailable to testify in one case, the prosecutor replied, "No no, no!!! I need you!!!"

Yet District Attorneys and the police seem uninterested in these facts. Back in August, when the State Police began interviewing employees at the now-shuttered Hinton Lab, they were told that Dookhan had close ties to prosecutors. The police never asked--or at least didn't record--which ones.

But there's more. According to today's Globe story, both Norfolk District Attorney Michael Morrissey and lawyer, Daniel W. O'Malley, Attorney General Martha Coakley has "already cleared" former prosecutor George Papachristos of any wrong-doing in the Hinton drug lab scandal--before any investigation.

Papachristos, of course, is the now-resigned prosecutor who exchanged emails with the Hinton drug lab chemist, Annie Dookhan. Dookhan, herself, was indicted yesterday on 27 counts related to years of allegedly fabricating and tainting evidence, leading to potentially unfair convictions in between 34,000 and 189,000 cases. That's a lot of lives ruined, a lot of broken families.

I wonder how many police and prosecutors had the Hinton lab on their speed dial. I wonder why they thought Dookhan's willingness to abandon her role as scientist was a reason to seek her out, rather than report her to her lab supervisors.

Consider this email exchange reported in today's Globe:

"Glad we are on the same team," [the prosecutor] once wrote Dookhan--including one day in May 2010 when he told her he needed a marijuana sample to weigh at least 50 pounds so that he could charge the owners with drug trafficking.

"Any help would be greatly appreciated!" he wrote, punctuating each sentence with a long string of exclamation points. "Thank you!"

Two hours later, Dookhan responded: "OK . . . definitely Trafficking, over 80 lbs."

Papachristo thanked her profusely.

I wonder if prosecutors would give accused drug offenders a similar benefit of the doubt when reviewing email exchanges in criminal conspiracy cases? The year ahead promises many opportunities for such charitable exercises of prosecutorial discretion: at last count, the number of cases implicated by this debacle may rise to 189,000 before it's over.

By the way--the correct operating procedure for drug lab testing is that chemists should not have pre-testing communications directly with prosecutors and cops on specific cases or specific batches of evidence. Period. The tests are supposed to be blind--marked with a control number, not discussed (by email or otherwise) with either police officers or prosecutors involved with the case.

Prosecutors know this--as do all lab chemists. So how does anyone at this point get off "clearing" Papachristos and a still-unknown number of prosecutors and police officers who reportedly were in direct touch Dookhan and other Hinton drug lab chemists to ask directly for help in testing and weighing drug samples for specific cases --cases that resulted in tens of thousands of clearly unfair and presumptively wrongful convictions?

Is this an example of the deference with which prosecutors treat their own when cops and prosecutors might be implicated in wrong-doing? Or does it instead suggest a scandal that stretches well beyond the Hinton lab?

Either way, it's wrong.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Carol Rose is executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts. A lawyer and journalist, Carol has spent her career working for and writing about human rights and civil liberties, both in the United States and abroad. More »

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