Deadlines Stressed for Retrials of Drug Cases

BOSTON (CN) – A judge with the highest court in Massachusetts sketched out plans Monday for the working group who will decide which drug cases tainted by disgraced chemist Annie Dookhan must be either dismissed or retried.

Dookahn pleaded guilty back in 2013 to doctoring the results of upwards of 34,000 drug tests while working at the Hinton State Laboratory — amounting to one in six of the criminal drug cases tried in Massachusetts between 2003 and 2012.

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ordered eight of the state’s district attorney offices last week to compile two lists of cases tainted by Dookhan’s work: a list of those the state wants to retry, as well as a larger list of cases to be vacated. Both lists are due by April 18.

Associate Justice Margot Botsford told the court at a hearing Monday morning that the retrial lists will be finalized by a four-person working group. By Tuesday, the court expects to announce the two representatives from the American Civil Liberties of Massachusetts and the Committee for Public Counsel Services who will serve on the group with two representatives for the eight district attorneys.

“These are real deadlines,” Botsford said. “We do not anticipate that there will be extensions except for absolutely enormously cataclysmic acts of God. There are certain things that I think we really need to get going right now.”

Nancy Caplan of the Committee for Public Counsel Services requested that prosecutors include demographic information in their list of defendants to see if any demographic groups have been disproportionately affected or left behind by the notice process.

“Early on it appeared that we were getting inquiries from people who are now living in suburbs rather than the city,” she told the court. “I started to suspect that demographically our inquiries were not reflecting the demographics of the pool of Dookhan defendants.”

Plymouth County Assistant District Attorney Gale McKenna worried that having to go back and further categorize the county’s lists of Dookhan defendants would get in the way of efforts to produce a list of cases to retry.

“We’re looking at this from the point of individuals and what the impact on public safety is,” McKenna told the court. “Our objective is to look at the most serious cases. If we stop now and start counting things in buckets, it prevents us from doing what the court asked us to do, which is put together these three letters.”

Prosecutors face orders to vacate and dismiss all Dookhan-tainted drug cases that their offices are unwilling or unable to reprosecute. The district attorneys must produce a list of cases that they would not reprosecute by mid-April.

The remaining defendants must be notified within 30 days of that deadline of their prending retrial.

“This is a very large number of cases,” Botsford reminded the parties Monday. “We all need to move on and we cannot move on until we get this. We need to put this whole episode behind, so I am really entreating you all to work cooperatively together and to join in on the goal of getting this done, getting this done well and getting this done fairly. This is history and it’s a bad history. It’s a stained history. We need to do something about that.”

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

The notices were sent out in early September 2016. By October 24, defendants had filed only 20 motions for post-conviction relief. Prosecutors filed 175.

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

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