Across-the-Board Relief in Tainted Drug Cases Rejected

BOSTON (CN) – The highest court in Massachusetts ordered a case-by-case review of the more than 20,000 drug defendants whose convictions may rest on evidence tainted by former state chemist Annie Dookhan.

Acknowledging that the process will be burdensome, the 59-page ruling says that the first step district attorneys must take is to vacate and dismiss all affected drug cases that they are either unwilling or unable to reprosecute.

A list of such cases is due within 90 days.

Prosecutors must then notify the remaining defendants within 30 days of their option for retrial. The defendants that seek retrial will be assigned an attorney from the Committee for Public Counsel Services. If more defendants come forward than the committee can manage, then the court will step in and possibly vacate all judgments against defendants who are left without counsel.

“The extraordinary magnitude of Dookhan’s misconduct has left us with only poor alternatives,” the lead opinion by Chief Justice Ralph Gants says. “We continue to believe that, despite its considerable risks and burdens, case-by-case adjudication is the fairest and best alternative to resolve the drug cases potentially tainted by Dookhan’s misconduct and the alternative most consistent and in harmony with the relevant principles of criminal justice that have and continue to guide us in this extraordinary situation.”

Associate Geraldine Justice Hines dissented, saying the court should have vacated all of the cases that crossed paths with Dookhan.

“The time has come to close the book on this scandal, once and for all, by adopting a global remedy,” wrote Hines. “While I agree, as the court notes, that a global remedy is ‘strong medicine,’ the continuing violation of the rights of the defendants affected by Dookhan’s misconduct and the damage to the integrity of our criminal justice system demand no less.”

The Committee for Public Counsel Services and the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts had also called for all the cases to be vacated, but the district attorneys favored case-by-case re-examination, but only if the defendant specifically requests such relief. Both sides found reason to applaud the Supreme Judicial Court’s decision.

“Today’s SJC decision is consistent with an uninterrupted series of rulings that prosecutors are best situated to assess the viability of their cases,” Suffolk District Attorney Dan Conley said in an email. “Since the Scott decision in 2013, the high court has rejected mass dismissal as a remedy to Annie Dookhan’s misconduct, and it has done so once again. In the weeks to come, we’ll consider the quality of the evidence, the availability of our witnesses, and the relative seriousness of each specific case in terms of public safety, public health, and public policy.”

Matt Segal, legal director for the ACLU of Massachusetts, cheered the court for fast-tracking case reviews.

“Today’s ruling is a major victory for justice, fairness, and tens of thousands of people in the commonwealth who were wrongfully convicted of drug offenses,” said Matt Segal, legal director of the ACLU of Massachusetts. “It is now time for the DAs to step up and finally allow Massachusetts to turn the page on the worst drug lab scandal in our nation’s history, especially because the Amherst drug lab scandal involving chemist Sonja Farak has called into question thousands more drug convictions.”

Wednesday’s ruling comes just a month after the court heard oral arguments on the case. Back in 2013, Dookhan pleaded guilty to doctoring the results of upwards of 34,000 drug tests at the Hinton State Laboratory — amounting to one in six of the criminal drug cases tried in Massachusetts between 2003 and 2012.

Prosecutors released a list in May 2016 of 24,481 cases where Dookhan impacted the guilty verdict. The state in turn sent out notices in September to 20,916 people. Of these, 5,762 came back as “return to sender.” Just 779 were mailed back.

By October 24, defendants had filed only 20 motions for post-conviction relief. Prosecutors had filed 175.

The state shut down its Hinton Drug Lab, located in Boston, in 2012. Dookhan has been out of prison on probation since April 2016.