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Suspicious lab results may overturn drug convictions

When prosecutors in Hillsborough County charge people with a drug crime, they frequently rely on laboratory testing to convince the court that the accused person had drugs in his or her system at the time of their arrest. People might assume that workers in those labs are impartial and simply apply scientific testing to blood samples to get at the truth. Unfortunately, that is not always the case, as residents of Boston recently discovered.

In a case that could affect hundreds of people currently incarcerated on drug charges, a chemist at a state-sponsored lab has been accused of manipulating and falsifying test results to frame defendants. The chemist was arrested and charged with obstruction of justice. Prosecutors say she mixed samples, forged paperwork and sometimes simply made up results. She has pleaded not guilty.

Meanwhile, several defendants whose convictions were based at least in part on her lab's test results are arguing that they were wrongfully imprisoned. A series of special court sessions has begun to determine whether these defendants should be released on bail while they appeal their convictions. At one session, held on Oct. 15, a judge ordered bail be set for 10 inmates, generally with conditions such as having the inmates wear a GPS device and obey a nighttime curfew.

This case reminds us that what the prosecution claims is not always the truth, even when the evidence is an apparently objective lab test. In some cases, defense attorneys arrange for a private lab to conduct its own testing to see if the results differ from the government's version of events.

Source: WFLX-TV, "Sentences put on hold over Mass. drug lab scandal," Denise Lavoie, Oct. 15, 2012

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