BOSTON (CN) – The highest court in Massachusetts confirmed the dismissal Wednesday evening of more than 20,000 drug cases tied to a now-incarcerated chemist.
Annie 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.
Eight district attorneys and their offices have been toiling since January to make two piles of cases tainted by Dookhan’s work: one list of those the state wants to retry, and a larger list of cases to be vacated.
The decision by prosecutors this week to dismiss 21,587 drug cases marks the largest dismissal of wrongful convictions in U.S. history, according to a release from the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts.
That group’s executive director Carol Rose applauded Thursday as the Supreme Judicial Court affirmed the dismissals.
“Today is a major victory for justice, fairness, and the tens of thousands of people who were wrongfully convicted based on fabricated evidence,” Rose said. “After four years of intense work, we are proud to have been a part of the single largest dismissal of wrongful convictions in the nation’s history. As a commonwealth and champions of freedom, we have taken an important step in addressing a symptom of the war on drugs.”
Matthew Segal, legal director of the ACLU of Massachusetts, remarked that this day has been a long time comoing. “Unfortunately, the victims of this crisis waited far too long for justice,” Segal said in a statement. “It shouldn’t have taken years of litigation by the ACLU, public defenders, and pro bono lawyers to address this stain on the commonwealth’s justice system.”
Prosecutors in Suffolk, where the majority of Dookhan-tainted cases took place, said they plan to retry just 117 defendants, which represents 1.5 percent of the total number of drug convictions in the county that were affected by the disgraced chemist.
“The 117 defendants identified in these cases account for more than 1,700 convictions for violent crimes or weapons violations, and have amassed more than 2,800 convictions in total,” Suffolk District Attorney Dan Conley said in a statement. “The average defendant has more than 60 entries on his record. When given the opportunity for rehabilitation in a community setting, these defendants have violated probation an average of seven times each. They are neither low-level nor non-violent, and they stand at the intersection of drugs and violence.”
Conley further identified 15,570 viable drug convictions from Suffolk County to dismiss pursuant to the high court’s order from January.
“If there had been evidence that any of these defendants was actually innocent, we would not have hesitated to dismiss the case outright and exonerate the defendant immediately,” said Conley, whose office moved to release defendants held on bail or serving sentences solely on Dookhan cases upon learning of her misconduct.
None of the defendants whose cases are slated for dismissal are serving a committed sentence solely on a Dookhan-related drug conviction. Few, if any, who were charged only with low-level, nonviolent drug offenses served even a single day behind bars.
“Prison cells should be reserved for serious, violent, high-risk and chronic offenders,” Conley said. “That’s the philosophy and the strategy we have followed for many, many years. It’s the reason Massachusetts has the second-lowest incarceration rate in America and the reason Boston is one of the safest big cities.”
Dismissal of the cases comes after a lackluster attempt by the state to have affected defendants pursue relief themselves.
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.