Mass. SJC Orders Solution for “Dookhan Cases” In State Drug Lab Scandal

I’ve written on this blog previously about the Massachusetts drug lab scandal, and I tweeted earlier this week about the latest , very significant development surrounding that scandal.

This colossal mess began almost 5 years ago, with the discovery that a Massachusetts drug lab chemist, Annie Dookhan, had spent years intentionally falsifying the lab tests that were submitted to the drug lab for content analysis for use by state prosecutors in drug cases.  The cases of  approximately 20,000 Massachusetts drug defendants and drug convicts were affected by her actions.  For several years now, state and court officials have grappled with what to do with these cases and convictions, which came to be called the “Dookhan defendants.”

As bad as that was, it got even worse about a year later, when it came out that yet another staffer in the Massachusetts drug lab, Sonja Farak, was regularly using a variety of the of drugs she was responsible for testing, which she stole from the lab.  It’s been estimated that the number of Massachusetts drug cases that Farak’s actions may have impacted, may reach an additional 18,000 cases.  Great picture, huh?  At the time those scandals broke,  it didn’t take any prescience to see the opposing camps that would develop:  Civil libertarians and criminal defense attorneys on one side, calling for outright dismissals of all convictions involving drug evidence that had been remotely handled by Dookhan and Farak, and prosecutors and law enforcement officials on the other side of the divide, calling for a much more restrained response.

This past week, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court delivered its order:    Instead of adopting the extreme measure of vacating (dismissing) each and every one of these Massachusetts drug convictions, it instead ordered state prosecutors to , within 90 days of its order, dismiss cases that prosecutors either would not choose to re-prosecute, or could not re-prosecute, if the defendant(s) were given a new trial. Of all remaining cases, the court ordered that clear notifications be delivered to all remaining drug defendants who had been convicted, informing those of their right to contest their convictions.

So, as an Attleboro, Massachusetts drug charges lawyer, what is my position on this order?  I think it’s a balanced one:  It doesn’t dismiss all cases en masse, but it does take appropriate recognition and action on those cases where evidence that was potentially tainted, helped produce a conviction.  There is another reason that I feel encouraged by this order: It has been estimated that  in excess of 60 percent of the “Dookhan defendants,”  were arrested on simple possession charges, not on charges of Massachusetts drug dealing.   These kinds of charges for merely possessing (or using) a controlled substance can devastate a person’s life:  People convicted of even Massachusetts drug  possession charges – and nothing more – can lose their jobs, lose custody of their children, and lose eligibility for public housing.  These consequences are the product of a “War On Drugs,” that has by all accounts been shown over and over to be an embarrassing, colossal failure, producing injustices that are too many to count here.  When will more state and federal legislators, and police and law enforcement people, wake up and see the truth advocated by respected organizations like Law Enforcement Against Prohibition?  Click on that link and you’ll learn a lot about smart drug policy, and what police and prosecutors should – and shouldn’t – be doing on this subject..