By Daniel Lovering
BOSTON (Reuters) - A former Massachusetts crime lab chemist was sentenced to three to five years in prison on Friday after pleading guilty to tampering with evidence and other charges in a case that shook the foundations of the state's criminal justice system.
Annie Dookhan, 35, agreed to plead guilty during a hearing at Suffolk Superior Court in Boston, just weeks after her attorney sought leniency and Judge Carol Ball ruled that her sentence would not exceed three to five years.
"I don't see any reason to depart from what I said that I would do," the judge said on Friday.
Dookhan's mishandling of evidence at the now-closed Hinton State Laboratory Institute in Boston, where she worked from 2002 to 2011, may have tainted cases involving as many as 40,000 people, investigators have said.
So far, hundreds of prisoners have been released pending new trials as a result of the investigation, according to state officials.
Prosecutors contended that Dookhan, apparently motivated by ambition, handled an unusually high volume of evidence by confirming - without doing proper chemical tests - that substances seized by police as evidence were illegal drugs.
They also accused 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, the chief counsel of the Massachusetts Committee for Public Counsel Services, Anthony Benedetti, said Dookhan's sentencing was not the end of the drug lab story.
"Sadly, the saga continues for the thousands of individuals who have borne the impact of Dookhan's misdeeds and the lab's scandalous mismanagement," he said in a statement.
Prosecutors had sought a sentence of five to seven years, higher than the state sentencing guidelines, because of what they said was the egregious nature of the offense.
Dookhan's attorney, Nicolas Gordon, declined to comment after the hearing.
During the sentencing, Gordon stood near Dookhan as she sat in the witness box wearing a black leather jacket. She spoke little, except to respond to the judge's questions. Her parents sat in the gallery.
She pleaded guilty to 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.
(Editing by Richard Valdmanis and John Wallace)