BOSTON (AP) — A Massachusetts judge said Wednesday that she won't impose a sentence of more than three to five years if a chemist pleads guilty in a state drug lab scandal that led to more than 1,000 criminal cases being dismissed or not prosecuted, many because of tainted evidence.
Annie Dookhan faces a long list of criminal charges, including tampering with evidence, obstruction of justice and perjury for allegedly faking test results at a state lab shut down in August 2012 after a state police investigation. Prosecutors are seeking up to seven years if Dookhan pleads guilty.
Dookhan's lawyer has asked for leniency, saying his 35-year-old client is terrified of going to jail and leaving her son, who has health issues. Dookhan has pleaded not guilty to 27 criminal charges.
Superior Court Judge Carol Ball said that while sentencing guidelines recommend one to three years, the magnitude of the harm done by Dookhan dictates a harsher sentence. Ball said she would also impose two years of probation if Dookhan pleads guilty.
Ball said that Dookhan, of Franklin, appears to be a "tragic and broken person" undone by her own ambition who should have foreseen the catastrophic consequences of her behavior.
"Innocent persons were incarcerated, guilty persons have been released to further endanger the public, millions and millions of public dollars are being expended to deal with the chaos Ms. Dookhan created, and the integrity of the criminal justice system has been shaken to the core," Ball wrote.
Dookhan's only motivation was to be "the hardest-working and most prolific and most productive chemist," her lawyer, Nicolas Gordon, said at a hearing last week.
In trying to test more samples, Dookhan failed to follow lab procedures and then panicked and tried to cover her tracks when she got caught, Gordon said. He declined to comment Wednesday on Ball's decision.
Assistant Attorney General Anne Kaczmarek urged Ball at last week's hearing to sentence Dookhan to five to seven years in state prison, calling her motives "selfish," and saying she had "weakened the criminal justice system."
Prosecutors said the fallout from Dookhan's alleged actions has cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars to assess the scope of the tainted evidence and mitigate the effect on thousands of people charged with drug offenses during the nine years Dookhan worked at the lab.
State officials have estimated that Dookhan tested samples involving more than 40,000 defendants.
Dookhan told state police she engaged in "dry labbing," when she would assemble a large collection of samples from different cases, test only a few, but label all of the samples as positive for illegal drugs.
Prosecutors said Dookhan's alleged actions have led to a public mistrust in the criminal justice system by harming the role of government witnesses and undermining the integrity of evidence.