Mass. chemist in drug test flap is arrested

September 28, 2012 - 1:36 PM
State Police Lab Shutdown

Annie Dookhan, center, is escorted to a cruiser outside her home in Franklin, Mass., Friday, Sept. 28, 2012. Dookhan is accused of faking drug results, forging signatures and mixing samples a state police lab. 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. (AP Photo/Bizuayehu Tesfaye)

BOSTON (AP) — 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 is charged with two counts of obstruction of justice, a charge that is formally called witness intimidation. That charge is punishable by a maximum of 10 years in prison. She is also charged with pretending to hold a degree for a college or university, punishable by as much as a year in jail.

Attorney General Martha Coakley said the obstruction charge accuses Dookhan of lying about the integrity of drug evidence that she analyzed at the lab in two instances. The other charge accuses her of lying under oath about having a master's degree in chemistry from the University of Massachusetts.

Dookhan was taken to state police barracks in Foxborough to be booked before her scheduled arraignment in Boston Municipal Court on Friday afternoon.

It is unclear whether anyone else will 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.

"I think that all of those who are accountable for the impact on individual cases need to be held accountable," Gov. Deval Patrick said Thursday.

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.

After the lab's shutdown, police asked a lab supervisor why Dookhan would take samples from an evidence room without logging them out. Elizabeth O'Brien told investigators that Dookhan was going through personal problems that included a miscarriage in 2009.

The lab supervisor also alluded to a 2009 Supreme Court decision known as Melendez-Diaz that said it was a violation of a defendant's Sixth Amendment rights if the accused didn't have a chance to cross-examine the chemists who prepared reports against them.

The high court's review of what started as a Boston drug case put prosecutors in a bind across the state, resulting in an order that chemists had to be present for cross-examinations at every drug trial.

"Annie was going through personal problems, then court, and Melendez-Diaz was tough at first on her. In 2009 she had a miscarriage and other personal problems. Perhaps she was trying to be important, by being the 'go-to person,' " O'Brien told state police.

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 in a state police report. "I messed up bad; it's my fault. I don't want the lab to get in trouble."

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Niedowski reported from Franklin. AP writer Bridget Murphy contributed to this report.