The Rhode Island attorney general, Peter Neronha, expressed disappointment with the R.I. Department of Health’s delay in notifying him of a mistake at the state drug lab, which could potentially affect numerous cases. Last week, the Health Department disclosed that a state scientist reported a trace amount of cocaine in a lab sample during a routine quality assurance test in November. However, Neronha was not informed until last week, causing his staff to scramble to handle the potential fallout. The issue, attributed to cross-contamination, triggered an internal review of the scientist’s casework, which concluded that evidence in 52 cocaine-related felony cases needed to be re-examined. Additionally, at least 263 misdemeanor cocaine possession cases that the scientist worked on during the same period also need scrutiny. Neronha’s office is collaborating with 18 police departments to navigate the implications, with defense attorneys already notified of their clients’ involvement in the cases. At least a dozen people, who are affected by the review, are currently imprisoned, and some could demand that their cases be dropped. Neronha has faith in the Health Department, which removed the lab scientist from reviewing cocaine-related cases until retrained on the equipment, but says he has a duty to ensure that defendants are not prosecuted unfairly or based on unreliable evidence. The Health Department waited to notify Neronha’s office, conducting a root-cause analysis to detect the discrepancy, said spokesperson Joseph Wendelken, adding that the department’s interim director, Dr. Utpala Bandy, is leading the investigative review triggered by the contamination case.

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