Chemist arrested in drug lab flap
BOSTON -- A Massachusetts chemist accused of faking drug test results, forging paperwork and mixing samples at a state police lab was arrested Friday in a scandal that has thrown thousands of criminal cases into doubt.
Annie Dookhan, 34, was led to a state police cruiser at her home in Franklin, about 40 miles southwest of Boston. Dookhan’s alleged mishandling of drug samples prompted the shutdown of the Hinton State Laboratory Institute in Boston last month and resulted in the resignation of three officials, including the state’s public health commissioner.
State police say Dookhan tested more than 60,000 drug samples involving 34,000 defendants during her nine years at the lab. Defense lawyers and prosecutors are scrambling to figure out how to deal with the fallout.
Since the lab closed, more than a dozen drug defendants are back on the street while their attorneys challenge the charges based on Dookhan’s misconduct.
Many more defendants are expected to be released. Authorities say more than 1,100 inmates are currently serving time in cases in which Dookhan was the primary or secondary chemist.
Dookhan could face more than 20 years in prison if convicted. She is charged with two counts of obstruction of justice, a felony count that carries up to 10 years in prison, and pretending to hold a degree for a college or university, a misdemeanor punishable by as much as a year in jail.
She pleaded not guilty Friday afternoon and a judge set bail at $10,000. She was ordered to turn over her passport, submit to GPS monitoring, and not have contact with any former or current employees of the lab. Family members and Dookhan’s attorney declined to comment after the brief hearing. Her next court date is Dec. 3.
The two obstruction charges accuse Dookhan of lying about drug samples she analyzed at the lab in March 2011 for a Suffolk County case, and for testifying under oath in August 2010 that she had a master’s degree in chemistry from the University of Massachusetts, Attorney General Martha Coakley said at a news conference Friday.
The only motive authorities have found so far is that Dookhan wanted to be seen as a good worker, the state attorney general said.
"Her actions totally turned the system on its head," Coakley said.
She said Dookhan could face more charges as the investigation continues.
"People absolutely deserve a system they can trust. ... We have to get to the bottom of this, and we will," Coakley said.
According to a state police report in August, Dookhan said she just wanted to get the work done and never meant to hurt anyone.
"I screwed up big-time," she is quoted as saying. "I messed up bad; it’s my fault. I don’t want the lab to get in trouble."
After her arrest Friday, Dookhan was taken to state police barracks in Foxborough to be booked before her scheduled arraignment in Boston Municipal Court.
It was unclear whether anyone else would face charges, but Dookhan’s supervisors have faced harsh criticism for not removing her from lab duties after suspicions about her were first raised by her co-workers and for not alerting prosecutors and police. However, Coakley said there is no indication so far of criminal activity by anyone else at the lab.
Co-workers began expressing concern about Dookhan’s work habits several years ago, but her supervisors allowed her to continue working. Dookhan was the most productive chemist in the lab, routinely testing more than 500 samples a month, while others tested between 50 and 150.
One co-worker told state police he never saw Dookhan in front of a microscope. A lab employee saw Dookhan weighing drug samples without doing a balance check on her scale.
In 2010, a supervisor did an audit of Dookhan’s paperwork but didn’t retest any of her samples. The audit found nothing wrong.
The same year, a chemist found seven instances where Dookhan incorrectly identified a drug sample as a certain narcotic when it was something else. He told state police he told himself it was an honest mistake.
In an interview with state police late last month, Dookhan allegedly admitted faking test results for two to three years. She told police she identified some drug samples as narcotics simply by looking at them instead of testing them, a process known as "dry labbing." She also said she forged the initials of colleagues and deliberately turned a negative sample into a positive for narcotics a few times.
Defense attorneys for drug suspects were not surprised by Dookhan’s arrest.
"I hate to say it -- it’s more than appropriate," said attorney Bernie Grossberg, who has already had one client released from prison and has been deluged by calls from other clients since news of the scandal broke.
Attorney John T. Martin, who has a client who was allowed to withdraw his guilty plea based on concerns over Dookhan’s work, said: "I think it’s rather tragic ... that she finds herself in the same position as the people she was testifying against. I hope the system isn’t treating the evidence against her the way she treated the evidence against several thousand defendants."
Dookhan was suspended from lab duties after getting caught forging a colleague’s initials on paperwork in June 2011. She resigned in March as the Department of Public Health investigated. The lab was run by the department until July 1, when state police took over as part of a state budget directive.
Niedowski reported from Franklin. AP writer Bridget Murphy contributed to this report.
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