A scandal in a Massachusetts crime lab continues to reverberate throughout the state's legal system. Several months ago, Annie Dookhan, a former chemist in a state crime lab, told police that she messed up big time. Dookhan now stands accused of falsifying test results in as many as 34,000 cases.
As a result, lawyers, prosecutors and judges used to operating in a world of "beyond a reasonable doubt" now have nothing but doubt.
Already, hundreds of convicts and defendants have been released because of the scandal. Now, the state's highest court may weigh in on how these cases should be handled.
"I don't think anyone ever perceived that one person was capable of causing this much chaos," says Norfolk County District Attorney Michael Morrisey, one of many DAs now digging through old drug cases, trying to sort out how many should now be considered tainted.
"You can see the entire walls full of boxes," Morrissey says, gesturing at dusty files piled six feet high in a conference room near his office. "In one of these cardboard boxes, there could be hundreds of cases ... in each box."
The cases represent nearly a decade's worth of work that could take years and tens of millions of dollars to review.
For Prosecutors, 'Unsettling And Maddening'
In Massachusetts, special courts have already heard hundreds of cases of convicts and defendants arguing they were denied due process. Their evidence, they argue, was handled — or mishandled — by Annie Dookhan.
In a recent hearing, public defender Julieann Hernon is arguing for release of a man charged with selling cocaine and heroin in a school-zone to an undercover officer. Hernon recites a list of alleged misconduct by Dookhan.
"It was, we now know, mistesting evidence, drylabbing evidence, saying she had conducted tests when she had not, deliberately tainting drugs," she says.
Hernon's client had pleaded guilty, but now, Hernon says, he should be allowed to take it back.
The whole dynamic in court has now flipped in Massachusetts. Defendants tend to smile while prosecutors watch their cases crumble. Today, Norfolk County Assistant District Attorney Tom Finigan tells the court that the Commonwealth will not oppose Hernon's motion.
"It's unsettling and maddening, because you're now going to have a lot of people get released to the street prematurely," says Middlesex County District attorney Gerry Leone, one of many hoping the state supreme court will curb the releases.
While some defendants could still be on the hook for gun or assault charges, for example, he says most drug cases where Dookhan was the primary chemist will be impossible to re-prove beyond a reasonable doubt.
But Leone says it's unclear where to draw the line. Some offenders, he says, are just trying to jump on the bandwagon, arguing that every test from that lab should be considered tainted.
"If someone's in jail, they're doing downtime," Leone says. "So there's no reason to try to file something that gets you back before the court."
In another recent case, defense attorney William Sullivan successfully argued to withdraw a client's guilty plea in a case where Dookhan was a secondary chemist.
"This is a lab that was pretty much wholly and fully contaminated by Ms. Annie Dookhan," Sullivan told the judge. "She had full access to everyone's drugs."
While the judge decided in his client's favor, Sullivan is quick to add that clients like his also have plenty of reason to be bitter.
"The tragedy is that he's already did four years on this," Sullivan says. "I mean, that is disturbing in itself."
Other defendants have lost jobs, driver's licenses, kids and marriages, and many have been deported. And in federal court, many defendants received stiffer sentences, because of prior state convictions based on evidence from Annie Dookhan.