Rollins raises new questions about state drug lab case

Another Massachusetts prosecutor is raising questions about the scope of the state’s investigation into the drug lab scandal involving the disgraced chemist Annie Dookhan.

Last week, Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins became the state’s second district attorney to challenge whether the investigation six years ago by the Office of the Inspector General had looked deep enough into what occurred at the Hinton drug lab in Boston. Dookhan pleaded guilty in 2013 to tampering with drug evidence there, and became one of the central characters in an embarrassing state criminal justice system saga that continues to play out in hearings today.

In a court filing related to a case before the office, Rollins questioned why the OIG’s probe did not review the work of Dookhan’s Hinton colleague, Della Saunders. Rollins said her office was conducting a review of Saunders’s work as part of the office’s case, and that it was also looking at the state’s investigation of the Hinton Lab.

“In addition to providing discovery, the Commonwealth will frankly assess whether a targeted investigation into Hinton Lab staff conduct was completed,” the filing stated.

The OIG’s 15-month-long investigation was conducted after Dookhan’s guilty plea and trial revealed she had tampered with evidence and faked testing drug samples. The OIG found Dookhan was the “sole bad actor” at the Hinton Lab. Tens of thousands of criminal cases were dismissed due to her misconduct.

Rollins’s court filing notes that Inspector General Glenn Cunha cited Dookhan’s high volume of testing as a “red flag” and asked why he did not therefore also look into Saunders. “Given Saunders’s prolific production numbers, coupled with the OIG’s concerns regarding similar production amongst other chemists, both of which mirrored Dookhan’s production numbers, the Commonwealth is reviewing the OIG materials to confirm that the investigation appropriately examined the conduct of Saunders and that Dookhan was indeed the Lab’s sole bad actor,” the filing reads.

The case that sparked Rollins’ review involves Justino Escobar, a man challenging his 2009 conviction on cocaine trafficking charges in which Saunders tested the evidence involved. Escobar’s challenge said the state never investigated Saunders during its review of misconduct at the Hinton lab.

“The fact that Saunders was the second-highest producing chemist in that lab should have raised questions,” said Escobar’s attorney, James McKenna. “The primary conclusion from the OIG investigation was that it was only Dookhan, but the investigation itself mentioned there were widespread problems at that lab, and there was no further investigation. I welcome DA Rollins’s review.”