Court clerk: Drug cases will strain system

October 12, 2012
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Special courts announced Oct. 2 to review cases affected by the State Laboratory Institute drug lab scandal will strain a court system that is already understaffed and underfunded, according to Maura Hennigan, the clerk of Suffolk County’s criminal courts.

“Even before this occurred, we have struggled every day to cover our sessions, manage our cases,” said Hennigan. “I’m certainly hoping this will be essentially the impetus to get some needed funding” for both the special courts and the regular courts, she said.

More than 1,100 convictions of people in prison right now may be in doubt due to alleged drug evidence-tampering by former State Lab employee Annie Dookhan, according to police and prosecutors. The state Trial Court, an administrative body that oversees all trial courts, has set up special courts around the state just to review cases that Dookhan worked on. One of them will be in Suffolk County Superior Court, which Hennigan’s office staffs.

Hennigan said she has assigned a staff person to assist Judge J. Christine McEvoy, who will preside over the special court, which is slated to be in session Oct. 15-26. That staff person will remain responsible for normal court duties as well.

The special courts require a “Herculean effort” from all court administrators, as well as from district attorneys, defense lawyers, and people in prison awaiting case review, Hennigan said. The drug lab also had reported problems with funding and staffing, possibly setting the stage for Dookhan’s alleged manipulation of the system.

“What people are realizing with this, it’s all public safety,” Hennigan said, explaining that courts and labs can be overlooked in the state budget until a failure happens.

Hennigan, a Jamaica Plain resident and former Boston city councilor for the neighborhood, said she was not aware exactly what was inside the State Lab, including its drug lab, until the scandal broke last month.

“I’ve known the State Lab was there forever,” she said, but only through community meetings sometimes held in a conference room there, and from the lab’s work on West Nile Virus outbreaks. “It’s kind of tucked away there. I think most people had no idea what that is.”