ACLU Touts Dismissal of 6,057 Tainted Drug Cases in Massachusetts

Matthew Segal, litigation director for ACLU of Massachusetts, addresses reporters at the group’s Boston office on Nov. 30, 2017 — the deadline state prosecutors were given to release lists of cases tainted by Sonja Farak, a former chemist at a state drug lab in Amherst who pleaded guilty to drug charges. (ZACK HUFFMAN, CNS)

BOSTON (CN) – Closing out a banner year for overturned drug convictions, the American Civil Liberties Union announced a 25 percent boost Thursday to the number of cases being dismissed by prosecutors over tainted evidence.

“Today we announce that multiple Massachusetts district attorneys are now poised to dismiss thousands of wrongful convictions due to evidence tainted by Sonja Farak,” said Carol Rose, executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts, addressing reporters from the group’s offices in Boston. “This shameful history of misconduct keeps repeating itself.”

The Thursday morning press conference marks the second blast this year at drug convictions in the commonwealth tainted by laboratory misconduct.

More than 21,000 drug convictions were overturned in April based on their connection to Annie Dookhan, the disgraced Hinton State Laboratory chemist who went to prison after she admitted to having doctored the results about one in six of the criminal drug cases tried in Massachusetts between 2003 and 2012.

While Dookhan’s efforts served to goose her lab work, Farak at the Amherst drug lab pleaded guilty in 2014 to stealing cocaine she was supposed to be testing.

The ACLU noted in a petition to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court this fall that Farak was abusing a pharmacy’s worth of drugs on an almost daily basis from August 2004 until Jan. 18, 2013. During this time she “was under the influence of methamphetamine, amphetamine, phentermine, ketamine, MDMA, MDEA, LSD, cocaine, or other narcotics (or suffering withdrawal from those substances),” the petition said.

Attorneys at the ACLU want the evidence that crossed paths with Farak to meet the same fate as the Dookhan cases. They say the state attempted to conceal the extent of the damage.

“Upon finding out about Ms. Farak’s malfeasance, prosecutors mislead the public about the scope of the scandal,” said Rose. “Our primary purpose today is to seek justice for thousands of people who have been needlessly suffering.”

The ACLU’s Farak petition led the Supreme Judicial Court to demand that Massachusetts district attorneys produce a list of affected cases as well as a list of cases that they intended to dismiss.

They had until the end of the day Thursday to comply.

Five district attorneys announced ahead of the ACLU’s morning press conference that they were dismissing a total of 6,057 cases.

“Given the nature and extent of her misconduct, retesting the substances at issue is unlikely to yield a reliable result,” Suffolk District Attorney Dan Conley said. “The most appropriate step is to notify the court that we will not pursue any further litigation in any of the identified cases.”

Suffolk, which is home to Boston, is dismissing 135 cases. Hampden County accounts for the bulk of dismissed cases (3,940), while the Northwestern District DA, who handles Franklin and Hampshire counties, is dismissing the next highest number of cases (1,497). Middlesex and Worcester counties are dismissing 245 and 241 cases, respectively.

The remaining district attorneys released their numbers later Thursday, announcing the dismissal of roughly 1,000 more cases. Essex is dismissing about 500 cases, Bristol reported 203, Plymouth gave an estimate of about 100, and Norfolk reported 76. The DA of the three counties making up the Cape & Islands did not find any cases. Berkshire County was reportedly reviewing 600 cases but has not revealed how many it will dismiss.

Jillian Fennimore, a spokeswoman for the state Attorney General’s Office, said that her office did not submit any dismissals because they were not away of any cases from their office that were affected by Farak.

“It’s unfortunate that the ACLU chose to stage a press conference without reading the AG’s brief filed in this case, which calls for speedy relief for these defendants,” Fennimore said in an email. “Sonja Farak’s crimes were egregious and, as our filings today make clear, this office has been working hard to resolve these cases as quickly as possible. Staff in the AG’s Office have been working hard for months to review databases, identify the Farak defendants, and secure their speedy relief. For the ACLU to suggest otherwise is false and irresponsible.”

The ACLU brought its Farak petition with the Committee for Public Counsel Services, and the firm Fick & Marx.

“This case is a reflection of how a misguided war on drugs turned into a war on poor people and a war on people of color,” Randy Gioia, deputy chief counsel at the Committee for Public Counsel Services, said Thursday. “It turns out that for thousands of people the system that sent them to jail or put them on probation was rotten to the core.”

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