IT SOUNDS LIKE one of the least appealing jobs ever: Sift through tens of thousands of state and federal drug cases, determine which ones may be compromised by tainted evidence, help shepherd them through a knotty legal system, and then bring some measure of justice to those denied a fair trial. The time frame? Indefinite. The size of the problem? It’s a sprawling mess. The stakes? High. The chances of broad public recognition or gratitude? Low.
Which is to say, it’s just the kind of offer David Meier couldn’t turn down. With an abiding — some might say almost masochistic — commitment to the integrity of the criminal justice system, Meier, a veteran prosecutor now in private practice, was the natural choice when Governor Deval Patrick needed a skilled hand to repair one of the biggest law enforcement scandals in Massachusetts: the alleged widespread misconduct of a chemist at a state drug lab and the serious oversight lapses that allowed it to happen.
As of late November, the chemist, Annie Dookhan, was known to have handled roughly 60,000 drug samples involving some 34,000 defendants over 8 ½ years at the Hinton State Laboratory Institute in Jamaica Plain. Dookhan, according to an initial investigation, allegedly identified substances as cocaine even when tests showed otherwise and turned negative results for cocaine and other drugs into positive ones. Prosecutors based many, many cases on her work. Anything that Dookhan touched — from her lab results to her testimony at trial — is now suspect.
The scandal’s reach is breathtaking. The failures at the drug lab, which the state closed in August, will cost the public tens of millions of dollars, ripple across much of Eastern Massachusetts, and likely take years to right. People may be locked up or have had their sentences for separate crimes extended based on falsified evidence. There may be others who finished their drug sentences years ago but still live with the consequences: Has it hindered their pursuit of a job? An apartment? A driver’s license?
Since his appointment by the governor in September, the 57-year-old Meier has been developing a master list of defendants who may have been affected, drawing on drug lab data and many other sources. He’s being paid $12,500 a month and is doing the work while maintaining his practice at the Boston law firm Todd & Weld, where he is a partner.
“The job of marshaling the facts on these cases and getting these cases to a point where they can be resolved is a herculean task,” says Max Stern, a longtime defense attorney and president of the Massachusetts Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. Veteran Boston attorney James Sultan, who has known Meier for years, puts it more bluntly. “It’s an absolutely thankless task,” he says. “I think it’s a terrible job.” Sultan, in jest, offered Meier condolences along with congratulations. Meier says, “A lot of people have.”
Having presided over high-profile homicide cases in Middlesex and Suffolk counties, Meier is a public figure to a degree, but not a household name. His reputation in the legal community, however, is sterling. This job, of course, should not even exist. Now that it does, the work is proving to be complicated, frustrating, and contentious. But there does seem to be wide agreement on one thing: David Meier is just the guy to do it.
HE WAS, IN MANY RESPECTS, a typical California kid. After spending his first years in Connecticut, David Meier grew up on the campus of Stanford University in Palo Alto, where his father, Gerald, was a prominent economist who specialized in developing countries. The oldest of four boys, David spent much of his youth outside, played a lot of baseball and basketball, and attended the local public high school. He developed a lifelong affinity for the San Francisco Giants.
The Meier boys, though, saw more of the world than many peers. Their father, who taught internationally, took the family to Mexico, the Caribbean, and Europe. David Meier spent two years attending school abroad — first in England, then in Jamaica. And not, his parents insisted, at the fancy schools catering to the children of government officials and elites; in the public schools. “I was taught from a young age to treat people with dignity and respect and to hear people out . . . and to be fair and to be honest and to be true to my values and principles and convictions,” he says. “Perhaps part of that comes from opportunities to experience other people and other cultures and being exposed to different ways of life.”Continued...