Essex County DA: ‘It’s My Duty to Review Drug Lab Cases One by One’
Essex County has led the way for the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court to weigh in on how all counties should handle the drug lab cases. Essex County District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett has asked the court to review the process the state set up to deal with the potentially compromised cases.
Specifically, he’s challenging the authority of the special magistrates overseeing drug lab cases. Blodgett is also asking the justices to rule on issues of legal procedure. There are about 5,400 cases affected in Essex County affected by the crisis. At least ten people have been released from jail.
“It’s become urban myth in my opinion that all these individuals are languishing in jail because of Annie Dookhan and its just drugs only. It’s not. Most of these cases have accompanying charges of violence. No district attorney in Massachusetts is going to have somebody spend one more day in jail because of a case where Dookhan was primary chemist and the only charges were drug charges. I believe its my duty and obligation to review these cases one at a time.”
Jonathan Blodgett was elected Essex District Attorney in 2002. He graduated from Peabody High School in 1972 and, before taking office, practiced criminal law as a trial attorney. The Essex DA’s office handles about 35,000 cases each year, includes eight District Courts, three Superior Courts, and three Juvenile Courts. Annie Dookhan was identified as the primary or secondary chemist for 8,451 samples in approximately 5,400 cases being handled by the Essex County DA’s office.
Deb Becker: What I’d like to ask you about is, first of all, just generally, how do you think the drug lab scandal has affected your office?
Jonathan Blodgett: It’s had a huge effect, and not in a positive way because of the real stretch of resources and time that we’ve had to put into this. This was not a situation of our making. We’re handling it and we will but to take – we do about 35,000 cases annually and now we have another 5,400 cases tacked on without the ability to have addtiional resources has been a real strain. So I have people with very heavy caseloads now picking these cases up. And as you can imagine, it’s very time consuming going through each file on an individual basis which has to be done. It can’t be looked at like cookie cutters and it can’t be looked at or handeld in volume. Every case has to be looked at carefully.
But we have a war room. We have six people who were assigned full time just to handle and review all these cases. We’re really at the fingertip stage of these because the cases that have been reviewed and the six counties that it affects are cases which Annie Dookhan had been involved trying to determine, was she primary, chemist, secondary chemist, I mean confirmatory chemist, a notary – But those have to be reviewed and these are just for people who are currently incarcerated. That’s not including other cases in which people have been charged, she may have been involved, they’re out on bail or bail has been set and they’re awaiting trial dates so we’re not even close to being in the real, real meat of this and these cases are going to continue for years.
Now, the 5,400 cases, were those all cases that you believe were involved with Annie Dookhan or was it just the cases of those incarcerated?
Those are Annie Dookhan cases. Cases that have been adjucicated. We had 8,000 samples in which she may have been involved. Again, that’s why each case has to be reviewed. But 8,000 samples that we believe she had been involved in to what extent, we’re trying to determine. That translates to 5,400 cases that have been adjudciated here in Essex County.
Do you think this compromises public safety?
Public safety is being pushed to the limit. I don’t think I’d characterize it as being compromised. The integrity of public safety – this was, you know, a drug lab crisis that was begotten by the fact that there was no oversight. It’s still extremely, I think, upsetting to understand how this happened with people who were allegedly supervising not doing their jobs.
It seems like it’s such a mess and it’s unprecedented. I mean, have you heard of anything like this anywhere else?
No, there are situations in other parts of the county, country, excuse me, that we’ve tried to follow over time. But we’ve had a person, perhaps, doing something with respect to criminal activity in a lab. Traditionally it’s somebody who’s become addicted him or herself. But this, you hit the word, the word that I use when I speak about this, is unprecedented. And it has to be addressed extremely proactively and it has to be addressed by the resources to make sure that any defendant who’s unfairly incarcerated, any defendant whose due process rights, constitutional rights was affected gets justice. But it’s our job as the district attorney to balance that with public safety. As you can imagine, there’s been suggestions by some who’ve said, just dismiss all the cases. And I just think a really sophomoric and, quite frankly, insulting suggestion that’s no more than a sound bite because there are peole who are in jail who are dangrous people, violent drug offenders, dangerous people. We’re talking people not in jail because of posession who have substance abuse problems, we’ll deal with that in a with substance abuse problems, we deal with that in a compassionate, fair, just way. These are people who are dangerous people who commit acts of violence. So if they’re in jail now because of a Dookhan matter, and there’s a drug charge that was either they had pled to, because many of these people pled to it, or they were convicted of, we won’t stand for that if they had their right violated but in many of these cases, many of these cases there were accompanying charges. Unlawful posession of firearms, home invasions, serious assault and behavior, and I’m not going to be party to releasing somebody who had other charges in which that person was found guilty and put those people back on the street to violate people’s safety and the overall picture of public safety in terms of the community.
Do you know in terms of numbers how many folks would have been released at this point?
I’m not positive. I mean, I would say it’s less than 10.
Now, I believe your office has asked for two million dollars, when you talk about resources, to be able to have enough folks to deal with these cases. Is that the number for this fiscal year, alone?
What would that go for? What’s the total amount and what –
Well for assistant district attorneys, I need a couple of appellate attorneys. I need some superior court ADAs who will do the real grunt work. I need a couple district court ADAs talking anywhere – about six assistant district attorneys I was looking for, I need two admin staff to handle – we’re getting a huge volume of request for drug certifications, old files. I could use a copy machine to scan the cases, you know. We did a very detailed, as best we could because, again, it’s unprecedented, budget that we submitted over six months ago to the budget makers of the Commonwealth.
And, like everybody else, everybody’s wondering what’s going on, right? Why is it taking so long?
I’m not sure and I’m not really happy about it.
You’re wondering that as well?
When you see the way that the cases are being reviewed right now in a court session and you’re in this position of balancing public safety and liberty issues, if you will, what do you think is probably the biggest challenge for prosecutors and for the whole system in balancing those two competing issues.
Record reviews. I mean, there are so many different repositories for records, whether it’s House of Corrections for people serving sentances there, Department of Corrections at the state level, what were records at the Department of Public Health? It seems that there was practically no record-keeping there. So David Mayer (?) appointed a master to do that. Really just assimilating – we have our files. We’re doing our best to get back to pulling everything together but the courts are involved in terms of certified convictions or certified documents or docket sheets, the drug lab in terms of how the procedure had been done, so it’s really – it’s assilmilating all of the records necessary to make a clear and just determination as to how to go foward which is the biggest challenge right now.
Do you think that this raises a lot of questions about the integrity of the criminal justice system?
This has absolutely nothing to do with the criminal justice system. I think you’re phrasing that question the wrong way. This was a problem that was the administration’s problem. It was caused by lack of oversight in the Department of Public Health and nobody in the criminal justice system did anything wrong here. This was a chemist that was hired from the executive branch. It had nothing to do with the district attorneys, it had nothing to do with – I mean, the State Police lab caught this most recent crisis because they had protocols in effect. They had procedures for oversight and this was something that was going on for a long time under the Department of Public Health and it wasn’t a crime lab issue, it wasn’t anything that had to do with people who were on my side of the ledger.
But there are some folks who point to – there are email exchanges with an assistant district attorney in Norfolk County between Annie Dookhan and the ADA, looks like there was some sort of a friendly relationship and that the question’s been raised, whether she thought she was supposed to maybe make it easier for testing to be done for certain district attorneys and maybe there was some sort of collaboration going on with some DAs so there are questions. I mean, maybe that’s a conspiracy theory but there are certainly questions about how much of this is a systemic problem, really.
Ok, and that’s a fair question. I’ll answer it this way. I think that this person in question had one communication with this office and to suggest that if she had communication with assistant district attorneys was somehow nefarious is really unfair. Post-Gonzalez was the case that came down with Judge Scalia that said it was no longer acceptable to turn in a drug cert in a drug case, you had to have live testimony, how else were people going to find out if some chemist was available for trial than to have communication? You had to. And it’s my understand that many of the communications were ‘Are you available to testify on this particular date?’ To suggest that any communication somehow taints the system, I think to suggest that is not fair. It’s not correct. If there was something to show a relationship that was improper, then absolutely. It should be dealt with that way. To date, the way I understand it, there was not an improper relationship with respect to the one ADA in Norfolk County who resigned. I’m under the impression he tried to keep it professional but I have not seen anything to date that indicated that she somehow was doing something that would affect any case in my county so I don’t see it as a public safety, integrity question. I really don’t. And I’ll wait for the results of the Inspector General, Attorney General’s investigations before I make a final verdict on that.
or had anything to dow tih on my side of hte ledger quite frankly..
papachristos.. the question has been raised about possible collaboration
this person in question had one communication.. to suggest that if she had communication wtih das was somehow nefarious is really unfair. post gonzalez (scalia decision ) requringin live testimony, how esle would people find out if chemist is avialable for trial ? to suggest that any communication taints the stysstm is not fair. i know there is an investigation ongoing by inspector genearl to answer those questions more in dept. the way i understand it there was not an improper relationship. i’m under the impression he tired to keep it professional. i dont’ see it as a public safety inegrity question. i’ll wait for the other investigations before i make a final verdict on that