Court orders compromise in drug cases tainted by lab scandal

BOSTON — The highest court in Massachusetts on Wednesday rejected a proposal to dismiss 24,000 drug convictions because of misconduct by a former state drug lab chemist, but ordered prosecutors to throw out cases clearly tainted by the scandal.

Massachusetts courts have been struggling since 2012 to deal with the fallout after authorities discovered Annie Dookhan tampered with evidence and falsified thousands of tests in criminal cases. Dookhan served a three-year prison term for the crimes.

Many defendants still are waiting to challenge their convictions.

The Supreme Judicial Court declined to order the wholesale dismissal of cases sought by public defenders and the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts. The court also rejected a recommendation from prosecutors that it take no new action.

Instead, the high court crafted a three-phase system of dealing with the cases.

Massachusetts also is dealing with another lab scandal that has put thousands of criminal cases in jeopardy. Former state chemist Sonja Farak pleaded guilty to tampering with evidence and related charges in 2014. Investigators have said Farak was high almost every day over the eight years she worked at a drug lab in Amherst. She served 18 months in prison.

The court Wednesday ordered prosecutors to dismiss all Dookhan cases they "would not or could not reprosecute if a new trial were ordered." Second, the court said, defendants whose cases aren't dismissed should get new notice that their cases were affected by Dookhan's behavior.

Finally, the court ordered the state's public defender agency to assign lawyers to all poor Dookhan defendants who want to try to retract their pleas or get new trials.

The court acknowledged the new protocol will "substantially burden" prosecutors, public defenders and the courts.

"But we also recognize that Dookhan's misconduct at the Hinton lab has substantially burdened the due process rights of many thousands of defendants whose convictions rested on her tainted drug analysis and who, even if they have served their sentences, continue to suffer the collateral consequences arising from those convictions," Chief Justice Ralph Gants wrote for the court in the 6-1 ruling.

The court said the three-phase system preserves the rights of defendants through case-by-case decisions, respects the exercise of prosecutorial discretion and maintains the fairness of the criminal justice system "in the wake of a laboratory scandal of unprecedented magnitude."

Matt Segal, the legal director of the ACLU of Massachusetts, said he sees the ruling as a win for those who advocated for a large-scale dismissal of cases. The court gave district attorneys 90 days to dismiss cases they believe cannot be re-prosecuted. For cases that are not dismissed, district attorneys will have to certify that there is sufficient evidence to re-prosecute the case without relying on evidence tainted by Dookhan.

"We expect that in 90 days we will see that the DAs agree to dismiss thousands of cases," Segal said.

Suffolk District Attorney Daniel Conley said the court decision is consistent with earlier rulings "that prosecutors are best situated to assess the viability of their cases." He said that in deciding how to proceed on the remaining Dookhan cases, prosecutors will consider the quality of the evidence, the availability of witnesses and the seriousness of each case.

The court said that if district attorneys do not dismiss "large numbers" of cases, handling the remaining cases individually poses the risk that the demand of indigent defendants might outstrip the supply of public defenders to represent them. The court said that could result in constitutional violations for defendants who are denied their right to counsel. If that happens, the court warned, the solution will likely be the dismissal of the challenged drug convictions.

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