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Drug suspect withdraws plea in Massachusetts lab scandal

A drug defendant serving time in jail has been allowed to withdraw his guilty plea in the wake of a scandal at a drug-testing lab. It's the first of what could be many convictions jeopardized after police say they discovered a chemist failed to follow testing protocols.

David Danielli was originally charged with trafficking oxycodone pills, but he pleaded guilty to a lesser charge in June after Department of Public Health officials told Norfolk County prosecutors that drug samples in his case might be called into question. Danielli was sentenced to serve a year in the Norfolk County House of Correction.

Chemist Annie Dookhan is suspected of tampering with evidence, altering the weights of drug samples and purposely mishandling samples. The investigation prompted the shutdown of the lab last month. She resigned from the lab in March and hasn't been criminally charged, though the attorney general's office is conducting a criminal investigation.

Dookhan hasn't responded to repeated requests for comment.

After state police took over operation of the lab July 1, they said they discovered that the scope of the chemist's violations was much greater than originally believed. Danielli's lawyer then filed a motion for him to withdraw his guilty plea, which was granted Wednesday by a judge.

Speaking to reporters outside court after Wednesday's hearing, Danielli's attorney John Martin said, "Everyone who's been convicted of a crime in the counties of Norfolk, Suffolk and possibly other counties in the last 5 to 6 years, is possibly the victim of a very substantial miscarriage of justice. On the other hand, a lot of very dangerous people might get out of jail."

Prosecutors supported his motion to withdraw his plea because of the questions raised in a widening investigation into the chemist's actions.

"The Constitution demanded that we join defense counsel in seeking this defendant's release while we reassess and re-examine the evidence and the case against him," Norfolk District Attorney Michael Morrissey said. "We will work with defense counsel on this case and on other cases as long as it takes to fulfill the protections of the United States Constitution."

The investigation has prompted the firing of one administrator and the resignations of two others, including DPH Commissioner John Auerbach.

Auerbach blamed the mishandling of evidence on a single "rogue chemist," but he also faulted her supervisors for failing to recognize the magnitude of the problem.

Auerbach said Wednesday that he should accept responsibility for management failures as the agency's leader.

"I want to be absolutely clear: I accept no responsibility for the actions of a rogue chemist," Auerbach said, while adding: "At the Department of Public Health, the buck stops with me."

State officials have said Dookhan handled more than 60,000 drug samples involving 34,000 defendants over about nine years at the lab.

Dookhan was disciplined after failing to properly sign out 90 drug samples from the evidence room at the lab in June 2011, but Auerbach said managers believed it was an isolated incident and didn't notify higher-ups.

Auerbach said Wednesday that he did not believe lab supervisors engaged in a cover-up.

"Our focus has been on how it was possible that such activities occurred and could have gone undetected," he said. "And we've determined that there were deficiencies in the management of the (lab), and errors in judgment when a single incident of wrongdoing was identified in June of 2011."

Supervisors missed warning signs, Auerbach said, including the unusually high volume of samples tested by Dookhan.

While the agency had, like most others in state government, absorbed its share of budget cuts during the past five years, "reductions of budgets should never be an excuse for the lack of proper oversight and quality control management in critical operations like the forensic drug laboratory," Auerbach said.

He said he felt "complete anger" that the actions of one person could cause so much harm and over the possibility that justice was not served in some criminal cases.

"I am furious at that," he said.

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