By Daniel Lovering
BOSTON (Reuters) - A chemist accused of falsifying drug tests in a Massachusetts state crime lab may have influenced the outcome of drug cases involving more than 40,000 people, a former prosecutor tapped by Governor Deval Patrick to investigate the case said on Tuesday.
That finding could set the stage for a fresh round of court hearings on whether convictions linked to the chemist, Annie Dookhan, were valid.
Dookhan, 35, was arrested in September and charged with lying about the integrity of drug evidence that she analyzed.
Prosecutors contend that during her nine years as a state drug lab chemist, Dookhan handled an unusually high volume of evidence by confirming that drug evidence in criminal cases were illegal drugs simply by looking at them, rather than through chemical tests.
The investigator, former prosecutor David Meier, said his team found that Dookhan handled drug evidence linked to some 40,323 people.
"We were able to generate an additional approximately 2,500 names," Meier told reporters, noting that his team had analyzed 3.5 million lab documents. "There are approximately 40,000 names of individuals whose drug samples were associated with chemist Annie Dookhan in some way."
Prosecutors contend Dookhan tampered with drug evidence and faked test results at the Hinton State Laboratory Institute in Boston, where she had worked for nine years analyzing drug samples submitted by law enforcement across the state.
Apparently motivated by ambition, Dookhan handled two to three times as many cases as her co-workers.
Dookhan is also accused of altering substances in vials to cover up what prosecutors say was her practice of visually identifying samples without doing the proper chemical testing. She was removed from the testing lab in June 2011 and resigned in March 2012.
She has pleaded not guilty to all charges.
Investigators had previously concluded that at least 37,500 cases were tied to Dookhan's results and identified some 10,000 people convicted or accused of crimes based on evidence she had handled at the Hinton lab, which is temporarily closed.
About 338 prisoners have been released pending new trials as a result of the investigation.
The release of prisoners has created a headache for state and local officials. Boston Mayor Thomas Menino in November requested $15 million in state aid to help the city cope with additional police and shelter expenses that resulted from their release.
On Tuesday, Meier said the review earlier had shown about 2,000 of the roughly 40,000 people were incarcerated. So far about 2,600 court hearings related to the case have been held in superior court alone, he said.
Dookhan was arrested in September 2012 on charges of tampering with evidence, obstruction of justice, perjury and falsely claiming to have an advanced degree in chemistry. Dookhan allegedly got her job by falsely claiming she had a master's degree from the University of Massachusetts.
She was indicted on 27 charges in mid-December and was released on $10,000 bail after pleading not guilty to the initial charges after her arrest.
Dookhan's attorney, Nicolas Gordon, declined to comment on Tuesday. A trial has been scheduled for January 6 at Suffolk Superior Court in Boston.
Meier told a statehouse press conference that he had submitted a report on the review to Governor Patrick and that the names would be included in a database for prosecutors and other members of the criminal justice system.
"The vast majority of these individuals ... were charged with and presumably prosecuted in the local district courts or the Boston municipal court for first offense, minor possessory offenses," he said.
(Editing by Scott Malone and Bob Burgdorfer)