BOSTON — A chemist at the Massachusetts State Police crime lab in Jamaica Plain improperly handled drug evidence and breached procedures, leading police to worry about wrongful convictions and potential “miscarriages of justices” by corrupted evidence, state police said Thursday afternoon.
Gov. Deval Patrick ordered state police to shut the lab down early Thursday as police and the attorney general’s office investigate possible “malfeasance” of a chemist at the lab that could affect thousands of drug cases over several years.
Patrick ordered the lab closing after additional evidence came to light as part of an ongoing investigation looking at “improprieties” at the lab that conducts tests in drug cases. Within the last five days, state police investigators uncovered more improprieties than they originally thought, state police said during a press conference held at the Framingham headquarters. Investigators are looking at one chemist, who resigned in March. Police did not release the woman’s name.
Thousands of drug cases will now have to be reviewed, Massachusetts State Police Superintendent Timothy Alben said. The crime lab largely handles drug evidence in Suffolk and Norfolk counties.
“The potential is that we have people incarcerated or who have been wrongly prosecuted,” Alben said. “The consequences here are a miscarriage of justice. That is why we are taking this drastic step.”
State police declined to speculate on any possible motivation of the chemist, saying they were continuing to investigate.
“Our concern has to be any miscarriage of justice because of this particular employee’s malfeasance,” Alben said.
Protocols and checks and balances in place at the lab were not followed by the suspected chemist. Currently, police believe the problems are isolated to one individual, but they are unsure how many drug samples she may have impacted.
Alben said police are “all furious about this.” He said, “This is something that goes to the integrity of law enforcement.”
The drug testing lab under investigation handles approximately 8,000 cases each year, police said, adding the chemist under investigation did not handle all the cases.
Prosecutors across the state were notified early Wednesday morning about the lab’s closing. They are waiting for a list of the criminal cases already identified as part of the investigation.
“We, as district attorneys, will take the appropriate action necessary to ensure that justice is done. We have notified our counterparts in the public defender community to let them know that they will be provided the list of cases as soon as we obtain it,” Worcester District Attorney Joseph D. Early Jr., the president of the Massachusetts District Attorney’s Association and Cape and Islands DA Michael O’Keefe, vice president, said in a statement.
In a statement released by aides, Patrick called the situation “deeply troubling.”
“No breach this serious can or will be tolerated,” Patrick said. “The state police will continue their investigation to determine what happened and who is responsible so that we can hold those accountable.”
The Department of Public Health, which oversaw the drug crime lab up until July, began investigating in June 2011, police said. As part of the fiscal year 2013 budget, the Legislature transferred the DPH-run labs over to state police control.
Department of Public Health Commissioner John Auerbach released a statement late Thursday afternoon saying the division director responsible for the lab’s management while under DPH control was put on leave pending the outcome of the investigation.
Police and the Patrick administration have contacted the U.S. attorney’s office and the public defenders’ office to inform them of the problem, and ask for input in the investigation.
The attorney general’s office has conducted dozens of interviews, according to Brad Puffer, a spokesman for Attorney General Martha Coakley.
“We developed evidence that certain required procedures were not followed, and immediately informed stakeholders of those findings so that they could determine the scope of the evidentiary issues and take swift and appropriate action,” Puffer said in a statement.