Massachusetts defense attorneys say the mishandling of drug samples at a Boston crime lab puts basic evidence into question in thousands of cases over the past decade. A chemist at the lab allegedly violated testing protocols and may have deliberately mishandled drug samples. The legal ramifications from the debacle could go on for years. 

Defense attorney Liza Lunt, vice president of the Massachusetts Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, says thousands of drug convictions may be open to challenge and reversal. 

"This affects not only individuals convicted of a particular drug offense, but also individuals who are also serving time on a sentence which has been enhanced because of a prior conviction that was based on a drug analysis done by Annie Dookhan. So it’s quite a broad spectrum of people," she says.

The first task is trying to identify whose cases she tested. State officials say there’s no database matching drug samples with those currently serving time. So defense attorneys, state prosecutors, state police, the trial court and the governor’s office are sharing files, tracking down docket numbers and going through old cases in a process that could take years.
Then, Lunt says, attorneys will start asking for new trials: “If indeed, a lawyer has a case in which Annie Dookhan was involved in as either the primary or secondary chemist, in that case, defense lawyers will be filing motions for new trials, and in cases of pleas, filing to withdraw the plea of guilty and ask for a new trial.”

Then there's another complication. Lunt says the cases may no longer be triable. In some cases the drugs might have been destroyed by police after testing as a matter of protocol. If there’s no evidence, there's no new trial.

“In many drug cases, the only evidence of the crime can be the drugs themselves. In other cases where there are sales to undercover agents, then maybe evidence of the sale could be used. But the burden is on the prosecution to prove beyond a reasonable doubt the substance itself is an illegal substance. And if they can’t prove that, they have no case,” Lunt says.

So, because the state might have disposed of evidence, thousands of drug offenders could go free. Or because the chemist tampered with evidence, thousands of innocent people could currently be serving prison time.

Gov. Deval Patrick is asking the public not to lose faith in the integrity of the judicial system.

"We’re going to get to the bottom of every one of this 34,000 cases, find out where these people are and to find out what the disposition of their cases has been and do justice by them. And we’re going to do that just as quickly as we can," he says.

Officials still don’t know what motivated Dookhan. Her case is currently under investigation by the Attorney General’s office.