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DA Ryan wants SJC to weigh in on drug cases tainted by scandal-plagued drug lab

Court filing questions a decade's worth of cases statewide

BOSTON, MA; JUNE 21: District Attorneys Marian Ryan, right and Rachael Rollins during a press conference to address the media on a preliminary injunction allowed in lawsuits regarding ICE arrests in Massachusetts courthouses on June 21, 2019 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Staff Photo By Matt Stone/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald)
BOSTON, MA; JUNE 21: District Attorneys Marian Ryan, right and Rachael Rollins during a press conference to address the media on a preliminary injunction allowed in lawsuits regarding ICE arrests in Massachusetts courthouses on June 21, 2019 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Staff Photo By Matt Stone/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald)
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LOWELL – An extraordinary 15-page court-filing made by Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan Friday asks the state Supreme Judicial Court to decide if a decade’s worth of drug convictions across the state may need to be thrown out due to lingering, unanswered questions about the reliability of the scandal-plagued Hinton Lab.

The issue could affect about 17,200 convictions from 2002 to 2013 in Middlesex County alone. Ryan said it’s so far impossible to quantify the effects those convictions have had over the years on thousands of defendants who already served their time.

Scandals involving disgraced chemists Annie Dookhan and Sonya Farrack have led to the dismissal of thousands of drug cases tied to the two. But defense attorneys have also questioned the reliability of other test results from the lab, and a September ruling by Middlesex Superior Court Judge Michael Ricciuti turned up the volume on those questions and led to one man having his conviction overturned due to questions about the lab.

“My position is that this is a systemic issue,” Ryan told The Sun, in explaining why she asked the court to review all cases statewide. “We have dealt with the cases from Dookin, we’ve at least identified and dealt with some of the cases from Farack… but no one has addressed the cases that were done by other people at the lab and we need to get to the end of the whole Hinton Lab thing.”

An investigation by the Office of the Inspector General, released in 2014, determined Dookhan was a lone “bad actor” at the lab, though it also uncovered a lengthy list of leadership and supervision failures at the facility. Ricciuti ruled that report does not adequately probe issues at the lab that prosecutors must disclose, which leaves prosecutors statewide in a bind.

Ryan, in a telephone interview Monday, said she has asked the OIG’s office for additional information, and been promised that it’s coming, but that she still has no additional info.

“Taxpayers spent $6 million on this investigation. We need to get to the bottom of it,” Ryan said. “It’s important for people to know what did we get and what did we buy for $6 million, and it’s important to know, if you got convicted due to a result from that lab, should we have relied on that?”

Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins announced her intent to work with defense attorneys to review about 70,000 Suffolk County cases tied to the scandal-plagued Hinton Lab last week, but another of the state’s 11 district attorney’s — Cape and Islands DA Michael O’Keefe  —  called Rollins’ move “a publicity stunt.”

Ryan did her talking in court, though, with a filing that goes far beyond Rollins review of Suffolk County cases and asks the state’s highest court to use its authority to review “a systematic problem in a comprehensive way” and rule on all cases statewide instead of allowing unanswered questions to be litigated county by county, case by case, and possibly with different results.

“The Office of the Inspector General’s investigation into the Hinton Lab found many failures and problems at the lab, including lack of resources, lack of accreditation, lack of oversight, lack of training, lack of protocols, and chain of custody concerns,” Ryan said in the court filing. “This raises questions about the reliability of all testing performed at Hinton.”

Despite the findings of numerous systematic deficiencies at the lab, the 2014 report from the OIG’s office determined Dookhan was the sole “bad actor” at the lab. The 2014 probe didn’t examine the work of Farack, who later served time after admitting she was addicted to drugs while working in the state’s Amherst lab. Authorities have long known Farack was already addicted to drugs while she worked at Hinton, but her work there was not reviewed, nor was the work of other chemists who performance records showed the same red flags that had led to the discovery of Dookhan’s misdeeds.

Ryan’s SJC filing quotes the OIG report’s findings that “management failures of DPH lab directors contributed to Dookhan’s ability to commit her acts of malfeasance. The directors were ill-suited to oversee a forensic drug lab, provided almost no supervision, [and] were habitually unresponsive to chemists’ complaints and suspicions.”

“The OIG did not clearly explain why, despite the numerous failures of the lab, they were confident that the testing performed was accurate and the convictions arising out of the lab were reliable,” Ryan wrote.

Robert McGovern Jr., communications director for the Committee for Public Counsel Services, said the state’s public defenders are aware of but not directly involved with Ryan or Rollins’ efforts.

“We continue to have a positive working relationship with District Attorney Ryan and her staff in their pursuit of a fair resolution to the many convictions that have been tainted by the drug lab scandal,” McGovern said. “We appreciate their good-faith efforts to make this right.”

A message seeking comment from the Massachusetts District Attorney Association, currently led by O’Keefe, was not immediately returned.

Comparing the situation with the lab to an airline crash and a subsequent investigation by the National Transportation Safety Bureau, Ryan said state officials must find out exactly what happened to ensure it doesn’t happen again.

“The Hinton Lab was a disaster, but there are lessons to be learned from that about management and supervision,” Ryan said. “I think we already paid to do that. I just want to know what the answers are.”

To read Ryan’s petition to the Supreme Judicial Court, click here. To view the 129-page OIG’s report on the Hinton Lab, click here.