Massachusetts Orders Prosecutors To Review 24,000 Tainted Drug Lab Cases

By McCarton Ackerman 01/26/17

The court rejected an ACLU proposal to throw out all the cases due to falsified results. 

Researcher fills test tubes in a laboratory.

Thousands of drug convictions could soon be removed, now that the highest court in Massachusetts has ordered a compromise that may put an end to the state’s drug lab scandal.

Former state lab chemist Annie Dookhan, who ran evidence for criminal cases in a Massachusetts crime lab between 2004 and 2010, previously pleaded guilty to falsifying drug tests and lying in court. She was sentenced in November 2013 to three to five years behind bars and two years of probation, but was released on parole last April.

Doohan admitted to altering and even faking test results, as well as visually identifying samples without testing them. More than 24,000 drug lab cases were affected by her actions and as many as 40,000 people may have been falsely convicted.

Last Wednesday (Jan. 18), the state’s Supreme Judicial Court rejected a proposal from public defenders and the ACLU of Massachusetts to throw out all 24,000 cases. However, reported that the court put together a three-phase process to address the issue.

Prosecutors were ordered to dismiss any cases clearly tainted by Dookhan’s actions and that they “would not or could not re-prosecute if a new trial were ordered.” Any defendants who don’t have their case dismissed will receive notice that their cases were affected by Dookhan’s behavior.

The state’s public defender agency was also ordered to assign lawyers to any defendants who couldn’t afford one, but wished to get new trials or retract their plea.

ACLU of Massachusetts lawyer Adriana Lafaille had previously argued for dismissing all of the cases, because “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.”

The court acknowledged that the new protocol will "substantially burden" the courts, prosecutors and public defenders, but believed it was the best compromise.

The state is also dealing with a separate lab scandal that could affect thousands more cases. Former state chemist Sonja Farak, who worked at a drug lab in Amherst for eight years, pleaded guilty in 2014 to tampering with evidence and related charges. She served 18 months in prison and has since been released. Prosecutors argued during her trial that she was high almost every day on the job.

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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.