BOSTON (CN) - Massachusetts prosecutors struggled before the state's highest court Wednesday to defend the convictions of thousands of people whose cases intersected with a chemist convicted of falsifying lab results to ensure drug convictions.
The hearing erupted from demands to vacate all the sentences of individuals whose evidence was handled by Annie Dookhan at the Hinton State Laboratory. Back in 2013, the former chemist pleaded guilty to doctoring the results of upwards of 34,000 drug tests -- amounting to one in six of the criminal drug cases tried in Massachusetts between 2003 and 2012.
The Committee for Public Counsel Services and the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts say state district attorneys failed to remedy the problem within a reasonable time frame, so it is time for the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts to intervene.
When prosecutors released the list of 24,481 cases in which Dookhan impacted the guilty verdict in May, the state sent out notices to 20,916 people. Of these, 5,762 came back as “return to sender.” Just 779 were mailed back.
Susanne O’Neill of the Norfolk DA’s office suggested that this was because many of those affected were only partially impacted by Dookhan, as other evidence also contributed to their convictions. She also argued that those who have already served their sentences would be reluctant to reopen that part of their lives.
But Associate Justice Geraldine Hines was skeptical of O’Neill’s explanation. “In what world does a defendant who has been convicted on evidence that we assume was attributable to government misconduct," Hines began. "In what world do they not want to make that right? It sounds like the commonwealth is saying that this class of people doesn’t care. I cannot imagine that if people are given notice and are aware of their rights that they would not be like everybody else and want justice.”
Matthew Segal, legal director for the ACLU of Massachusetts, argued that, if the justices decide against a blanket order vacating all the sentences, that they should at least consider tossing most of the cases.
“What has happened since then despite the good-faith effort, is a failure to deliver justice,” Segal said, noting that it took four years for the DA offices to produce a list of those affected. “What we’re talking about now is the integrity of the system itself.”
After Dookhan’s tainted test results initially came to light, the scope of the number of cases involved concerned those in the court system, who worried that there may not be enough resources to retry every individual.
“I think it’s fairly obvious that the reason there hasn’t been a flood of cases is because there hasn’t been an ability to access justice,” said Segal. “Our view is that it is too late.”
Benjamin Keehn of the Center for Public Counsel Services argued that if the defendants, many of whom would need public counsel, had all responded to the letters, the state would face a crisis over a shortage of available attorneys.
“We’re talking about convicting people with fraudulent evidence," Keehn said. "Short of blowing up the courthouse, it’s hard to conceive of a greater threat to this court system. These cases don’t just handle themselves. The only reason that this has not completely crippled the agency is because there has been no effort for four years to actually identify these individuals.”
Quentin Weld, assistant DA for Essex, countered that concern over the lack of available public attorneys was based on assumption rather than fact.
“They’re not saying that there is a flood of Dookhan notices," Weld said. "They are saying that were all 20,000 defendants to come forward, then they would not be able to serve them. It’s purely speculation.”
The state shut down its Hinton Drug Lab, located in Boston, in 2012 amid concerns that a lab employee had been producing positive test results without ever properly testing the drugs, helping state prosecutors obtain drug convictions. Dookhan has been out of prison on probation since April 2016.
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