By Daniel Lovering
BOSTON (Reuters) - A lawyer for a former chemist accused of falsifying thousands of drug tests at a Massachusetts crime lab urged a judge on Friday to be lenient in sentencing his client, arguing she had already suffered severely as a result of the scandal.
During a hearing at Suffolk Superior Court in Boston, defense attorney Nicolas Gordon recommended that his client, Annie Dookhan, serve one year in jail if she pleads guilty rather than the five to seven years sought by prosecutors.
Investigators have said Dookhan, apparently motivated by ambition, handled two to three times as many cases as her co-workers at the Hinton State Laboratory Institute in Boston and may have marred cases involving as many as 40,000 people.
Hundreds of prisoners have been released pending new trials as a result of the investigation into Dookhan's activities at the lab, where she worked between 2002 and 2011.
Prosecutors also accuse her of lying while testifying as an expert witness in more than a dozen criminal trials and of falsely claiming to have a master's degree in chemistry.
On Friday, Gordon said locking up Dookhan for five to seven years would amount to retribution because she had already been devastated personally and professionally as a result of the investigation and its repercussions.
He said Dookhan's husband had recently left her for another woman and that she had been racked with anxiety and guilt. She also lives in terror of being separated for a prolonged period from her disabled 7 year old son, Gordon said.
"She is a shell of her former self," he told Judge Carol Ball. "There is absolutely no malicious or black-hearted criminal intent to be found anywhere in this case."
Gordon said Dookhan's only motive was to be the "hardest-working, most prolific" chemist she could be, and that she never intended to hurt anyone when she "made the worst decision of her life."
Prosecutors contend that during her nine years as a state drug lab chemist, Dookhan handled an unusually high volume of evidence by confirming - without doing proper chemical tests - that substances seized by police as evidence were illegal drugs.
Assistant Attorney General Anne Kaczmarek said in court on Friday that Dookhan had "created a public mistrust of the criminal justice system," cost the state millions of dollars and triggered a public safety catastrophe.
Dookhan faces charges including eight counts of tampering with evidence, 17 counts of obstruction of justice, one count of perjury and one count of falsely claiming to hold a degree.
Massachusetts law allows a maximum sentence of 10 years for tampering with evidence and 20 years for perjury.
Dookhan has pleaded not guilty to the charges.
Plea negotiations usually take place out of public view, but the judge said she decided to break with that practice for this case because "the events that brought us here today have had such a serious impact on the criminal justice system," and that she didn't want it to appear that deals were being negotiated privately.
Judge Ball told the attorneys she would make her decision by the end of next week.
(Reporting by Scott Malone)