Who Should be Held Responsible for Annie Dookhan’s Crimes?

By Britni de la Cretaz 04/28/17

Tainted evidence led to thousands of false drug convictions. At what point must the state take responsibility for their role in this scandal?

law scales inside chemistry beaker
District Attorneys bear partial blame for the drug lab scandals involving Dookhan

After years of litigation, tens of thousands of drug cases convicted with tainted evidence have been dismissed in Massachusetts. It is likely the largest mass dismissal in United States history, with a total of 21,587 cases being dismissed. And while Annie Dookhan, the chemist convicted of forging documents and falsifying evidence over the course of approximately eight years at the Hinton Drug Lab, has been sentenced for her crimes, the question of whether anyone else needs to be held responsible for this mess remains.

The state’s District Attorneys believe that Dookhan was a lone bad apple, that removing her and ensuring better oversight for state drug labs is the solution to a process that affected the lives of so many (despite the fact that the state is currently dealing with another drug lab scandal; chemist Sonja Farak was using drugs, stealing drugs, and manufacturing drugs in the Amherst Lab. The state is currently in the process of resolving the cases she handled). But the state not only chose to prosecute all of these individuals for drug crimes, they then spent years after Dookhan’s arrest delaying the process of notifying defendants that their convictions may have been compromised. Then, they argued in court that the convictions should stand, even going so far as to suggest that people with Dookhan convictions wouldn’t want to “re-open a closed chapter” in their lives.

“The District Attorneys are ultimately to blame for… the drug lab scandals,” says the No Drug Arrests Collective in a statement. “District Attorneys fought against a remedy for more than five years, wasting taxpayer dollars while ignoring the devastating impact these convictions had on thousands of our neighbors.” At what point must the state take responsibility for their role in this scandal?

Dookhan’s misconduct was first brought to the attention of her superiors in 2009. She wasn’t fired until 2011, and she was arrested in 2012. In 2015, she pled guilty and was sentenced to three to five years in prison, with two years probation. She was paroled in 2016. In a press release, Matthew Segal, Legal Director of the ACLU of Massachusetts, said, “Unfortunately, the victims of this crisis waited far too long for justice. It shouldn’t have taken years of litigation by the ACLU, public defenders, and pro bono lawyers to address this stain on the Commonwealth’s justice system.” For their part, the ACLU pushed for mass dismissal of all 24,000 of the cases handled by Dookhan — accounting for about 1 in 6 drug cases in the state during that time period — when news of her arrest broke. At the time, they said they were hoping to avoid “protracted litigation.”

As Segal noted in an interview with Democracy Now!, “...it takes a village to taint 21,000 cases. And although she was probably the only person who was intentionally falsifying evidence, there were a lot of missteps along the way.” These missteps include the fact that when colleagues' concerns about Dookhan were brought forward, they were told it was a "personnel matter." It was not until oversight of the lab transferred hands from the Department of Public Health to the State Police that Dookhan’s misconduct really came to light and was handled appropriately. “It was only when the State Police took over the Hinton Lab as a cost saving measure that they realized the extent of Dookhan’s malfeasance,” says Jake Wark, press secretary for the Suffolk County district attorney’s office.

Following that, the state failed to properly or in a timely manner notify people whose cases might have been affected by Dookhan’s arrest. They attempted to contact each person individually and put the burden of re-opening their cases on the defendants themselves. “The District Attorneys were sending out notices, trying to seek [defendants] to come in and affirmatively dismiss their cases. That failed, for a number of reasons,” says Oren Nimni, an attorney at Community Law Office who has advised clients with Dookhan convictions. “The notice was terrible and unclear, it didn’t reach most people, and it was improperly translated.” It wasn’t until the Supreme Judicial Court stepped in and ordered the prosecutors to take on the burden of deciding which, if any, cases would be re-prosecuted that things began to move forward.

Wark feels prosecutors have not gotten enough credit for the work they put into “seeing that a just outcome” was reached. “The Suffolk and Essex county prosecutors in particular have been recognized and praised by the [Supreme Judicial Court] … for voluntarily and affirmatively providing a great deal of labor and staffing resources toward resolving the case and identifying all the affected defendants,” he told Pacific Standard.

“When the state wrongfully convicts people, it should be up to the state to say how they’re… going to fix that problem, instead of requiring individual people, by the thousands, to come forward and litigate case by case,” Segal said on Democracy Now! “So, what happened in this litigation was our state’s highest court put that burden on the prosecutors to come forward, and to do so in 90 days from the court’s decision, to identify cases to dismiss. And that flipping of the burden really opened the doors to a more just outcome.”

Now that Dookhan has served her sentence and the bulk of the cases she touched over the course of her career have been dismissed, what about the state? “Only the chemists have been punished for scandals that stretch across the Commonwealth and spanned almost a decade. [Annie Dookhan and Sonja Farak] went to prison for their role in the scandal,” reads the NDAC statement. “The District Attorneys, on the other hand, have not accepted responsibility and have made it clear they do not respect the people they prosecute or the communities they come from.”

Suffolk County District Attorney Dan Conley said, “Many of the defendants in those [Hinton Drug Lab] cases have significant criminal histories, including crimes of violence, separate from the Dookhan-related drug convictions…If there had been evidence that any of these defendants was actually innocent, we would not have hesitated to dismiss the case outright and exonerate the defendant immediately.”

The people who were convicted based on Dookhan’s evidence have had to deal with the ramifications of those convictions. Many were incarcerated as a result, which is traumatic for both the person who goes to prison and the families and communities they leave behind. People have lost housing, had trouble finding employment due to having felony convictions on their record, lost custody of children, had deportation proceedings begin. These are the results of prosecuting people for drug crimes in this country; the damages are far-reaching and numerous. “The state hasn’t touched [dealing with] any of the collateral consequences that went along with tainted convictions and are still putting a pretty big burden on people whose cases they don’t dismiss,” says Nimni.

“District Attorneys are elected officials,” notes the NDAC statement. “When they run for re-election, these prosecutors must be held accountable for the policies that led to the drug lab scandals and for their refusal to do the right thing until they were forced by the Supreme Judicial Court.”

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Britni de la Cretaz is a freelance writer, baseball enthusiast, and recovered alcoholic living in Boston. Follow her on Twitter at @britnidlc.