State drug testing lab shut down amid tainted evidence concerns

FOREST HILLS—A Jamaica Plain state laboratory that tested drug evidence in criminal cases was shut down today by the State Police amid concerns that a former chemist mishandled samples, potentially putting scores of convictions in question.

Gov. Deval Patrick ordered the closure of the lab, which is inside the William A. Hinton State Laboratory Institute at 305 South St., according to State Police spokesperson David Procopio. It appears that the State Lab’s other facilities, which include disease testing labs, remain in operation.

It is unclear exactly what the former employee did to raise concerns about evidence-handling, or how many criminal cases could be affected. The Massachusetts District Attorneys Association said in a press statement that it is awaiting a list of affected cases.

“We, as district attorneys, will take the appropriate action necessary to ensure that justice is done,” the statement said.

State officials already had concerns about the drug testing lab. The State Police took over its supervision from the state Department of Public Health this year in a move ordered by Patrick’s budget. As the State Police reviewed the lab’s operations, they discovered that “problems” found in an internal DPH investigation were “more widespread than originally thought,” according to Procopio.

The State Police and the Attorney’s General Office began investigating “matters of quality control and any potential wrongdoing,” according to Procopio. It is unclear exactly what the investigation found, but it was enough for Patrick to order the lab’s closure. The investigation continues, and a State Police lab in Sudbury will handle drug evidence in the meantime. The former employee whose work is in question has not been identified.

The State Lab’s disease testing work includes checking suspected rabies and West Nile Virus in wild animals, and testing suspicious powders for anthrax in potential terrorist incidents, as the Gazette previously reported.

DPH Commissioner John Auerbach is a Jamaica Plain resident. The state Executive Office of Health and Human Services, which oversees DPH, could not immediately be reached for comment.

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