BOSTON (CN) – On the heels of a sweeping order that dismissed 20,000 Massachusetts drug convictions tainted by evidence tampering, the state’s highest court now faces a call to do the same for thousands more cases handled by another disgraced chemist.
“The Amherst drug lab crisis represents a complete collapse of the criminal justice system,” the Sept. 20 petition filed by attorneys with the American Civil Liberties Union states.
Joined by the Committee for Public Counsel Services and the law firm Fick & Marx, the ACLU accuses the commonwealth of shirking its duty to identify and notify defendants who were convicted based on evidence handled by Sonja Farak, a former state chemist who pleaded guilty in 2014 to stealing cocaine she was supposed to be testing.
“The timing and scope of Farak’s misconduct was extensive,” the ACLU’s petition states. “On an almost daily basis from August 2004 until January 18, 2013, while working at the Amherst lab, Farak was under the influence of methamphetamine, amphetamine, phentermine, ketamine, MDMA, MDEA, LSD, cocaine, or other narcotics (or suffering withdrawal from those substances).”
The ACLU calls it undisputed “that by tampering with evidence, stealing samples, and abusing drugs while working in the Amherst lab, Farak impaired her ability to analyze samples, maintain the lab’s equipment, and testify in court.”
“Nor is there now any dispute that Farak tainted the evidence in all cases in which she served as the chemist,” the petition continues. “But following Farak’s arrest, the timing and scope of Farak’s misconduct was in dispute, and the AGO deliberately suppressed the evidence that would have exposed its true breadth.”
One 2017 order by the Hampden County Superior Court quoted in the petition says the interference by prosecutors in a Farak evidentiary hearing “constitutes a fraud upon the court.”
“This level of prosecutorial misconduct is unprecedented,” the petition states. “To leave ‘no doubt that such conduct will not be tolerated in our criminal justice system,’ this court should dismiss with prejudice the wrongful convictions of all Farak defendants.”
While the misconduct at issue is allegedly unprecedented, the ACLU notes that the relief it seeks is not.
Indeed the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court helped overturn 21,839 drug convictions earlier this year based on the misconduct by chemist Annie Dookhan at the Hinton State Laboratory.
“Far worse than the Hinton scandal, the Amherst scandal combines a lab crisis with prosecutorial misconduct of unparalleled scope and irremediable consequence,” the petition states. “This latest systemic lapse in the justice system demands a most emphatic response.
Disputing that the state can chalk up the misdeeds to one “bad apple,” the ACLU wants all Farak cases vacated and dismissed with prejudice.
“If the court does not deliver this strong remedy, a scandal that began with mistaken notions about one bad apple could end with a justice system that is rotten to its core,” the petition states.
Two women convicted of drug crimes based on evidence that intersected with Farak at the Amherst lab are also petitioners in the case. They claim they were never notified that Farak committed abuses that affected their cases, depriving them of the opportunity for post-conviction relief.
“Massachusetts’ ‘war on drugs’ has produced two of the largest drug lab scandals the country has ever seen,” Carol Rose, executive director of ACLU of Massachusetts, said in a statement. “The only sensible next step is for all of the victims of the Amherst lab scandal to have their convictions vacated and their tainted drug charges dismissed. Doing right by the victims of the drug lab scandal is critical to restoring the integrity of the criminal justice system and an important step toward addressing the criminalization of substance abuse.”
Another co-petitioner is the Hampden County Lawyers for Justice. “Every single case affected by Sonja Farak and the Amherst lab scandal should be dismissed – and prosecutors should be held accountable for identifying and notifying defendants with potentially tainted convictions, both in this scandal and others,” that group’s president, David Hoose, said in a statement.