Inside The ACLU's Push To Have 24,000 Tainted Drug Lab Cases Dropped

By McCarton Ackerman 08/23/16

Former state lab chemist Annie Dookhan tampered with drug tests and may have led to the false convictions of up to 40,000 people.

Inside The ACLU's Push To Have 24,000 Tainted Drug Lab Cases Dropped

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has been cleared by the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) in Boston to move forward with its bid to have more than 24,000 drug lab cases dismissed because they were handled by a state chemist who faked test results.

Annie Dookhan, who ran evidence for criminal cases in a Massachusetts crime lab between 2004 and 2010, was sent to prison in 2013 for tampering with lab test results. She admitted to visually identifying samples without testing them as well as altering, and sometimes faking, test results. Benjamin Keehn, a lawyer with the Committee for Public Counsel Services, said as many as 40,000 people may have been falsely convicted because of Dookhan's actions.

After pleading guilty to crimes relating to falsifying drug tests and lying in court, Dookhan was sentenced in November 2013 to three to five years behind bars and two years of probation. Dookhan was granted parole and released from prison this past April.

The Boston Herald reported that a hearing will now take place in November before the SJC, after it learned that tens of thousands of cases still hadn’t been processed.

“To handle this many cases on a case-by-case basis would completely cripple the justice system in Massachusetts. CPCS (Committee for Public Counsel Services) said doing this case-by-case would be disastrous,” said Adriana Lafaille, a lawyer for the ACLU of Massachusetts. “We think all of these cases should be dismissed.”

A data scientist hired by the ACLU found that 37% of Dookhan’s cases involved possession with intent to distribute, while 62% involved more minor possession charges. But despite the possibility that thousands of people are serving long sentences for crimes they didn’t commit, many officials opposed a mass dismissal. Opponents have argued that drug cases take evidence into account that goes beyond lab results, and have also questioned whether the move would spark issues of public safety.

“It’s a one-size-fits-all solution, but I don’t think it’s a comprehensive solution. It doesn’t serve the interest of justice,” said state Sen. Bruce Tarr. “Clearly, people deserve to have their day in court. To have a blanket dismissal would have a negative effect on public safety and a negative effect on the justice system. The question is what price do you put on justice?”

Last year, the SJC gave special permission to people who had pleaded guilty as a result of Dookhan's drug test findings, to undo their pleas. And last month, the SJC extended that right to defendants who went to trial. Some wondered if this would clog up the process of reassessing people's convictions, but others say that since most people pleaded guilty, it wouldn't have much of an impact.

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McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.