Mass. Supreme Court Orders D.A. to Vacate Cases in Massive Forensics Scandal

A corrupt crime lab tech tainted one in six drug cases in Massachusetts. The state high court just ordered prosecutors to drop thousands of those cases.


Annie Dookhan // BIZ WENN Photos/Newscom

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court cleared the way on Wednesday for more than 20,000 state residents with drug convictions tainted by an infamous crime lab technician to have their records cleared in what has become one of the biggest forensics scandals in U.S. history.

The state's high court put forth a three-part plan for dealing with the tens of thousands of drug cases that may have been corrupted by Annie Dookhan, a Massachusetts crime lab technician who pled guilty in 2012 to falsifying positive results in thousands of drug samples over a nine-year period. Dookhan's misconduct tainted an estimated one in six drug cases in the state between 2003 and 2012.

The state's criminal justice system has been wrestling with how to deal with the enormous amount so-called "Dookhan defendants" ever since then. The Massachusetts chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union was pressing the state's high court to vacate the convictions en masse, arguing it would take 48 years to assign public defenders to each of the 24,483 defendants potentially harmed by the Dookhan's dirty work.

The court declined to take such sweeping action, instead ordering state prosecutors to dismiss all cases within 90 days it would not or could not reprosecute if given a new trial. In addition, it ordered clear notifications to be sent to remaining defendants informing them of their right to challenge their convictions.

In a statement, Matt Segal, legal director of the ACLU of Massachusetts said Wednesday's ruling "is a major victory for justice, fairness, and tens of thousands of people in the Commonwealth who were wrongfully convicted of drug offenses."

"The court has called on prosecutors to dismiss the drug charges against most of the Dookhan defendants and to provide meaningful notice to the remaining defendants, all by fixed deadlines," Segal said. "It is now time for the DAs to step up and finally allow Massachusetts to turn the page on the worst drug lab scandal in our nation's history, especially because the Amherst drug lab scandal involving chemist Sonja Farak has called into question thousands more drug convictions."

A year after the Dookhan scandal broke, it was revealed that another staffer in the same lab, Sonja Farak, was regularly high on a galaxy of drugs—crack, methamphetamines, ketamine, and LSD—that she pilfered from the lab. Farak's actions may have tainted an additional 18,000 cases over the eight years she was at the drug lab.

Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan told the Boston Globe her office was reviewing the decision.

"Today the court recognized the longstanding principle that prosecutors should determine the cases appropriate for trial," she said. "We are already beginning to implement the court's directive about the evaluation of cases."

As I wrote in September:

According to the ACLU, more than 60 percent of the the drug charges against the Dookhan defendants were for simple possession, not drug dealing. Felons are barred from voting and owning guns in Massachusetts. Convicted defendants may have also faced lost jobs, lost custody of their children, being kicked out of or rejected for public housing, and deportation. One defendant whose case has already been vacated by the court is Daniel Francis, who served more than five years in state prison before being deported to Jamaica.

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  1. The most important thing about this case is that that is a very good picture of Annie Dookhan and she does not really look like that.

    1. Still would.

    2. Even in that pic, which is quite flattering, she still looks a little . . . off.

  2. The court declined to take such sweeping action, instead ordering state prosecutors to dismiss all cases within 90 days it would not or could not reprosecute if given a new trial.

    So does this mean the retrials would have to take place within 90 days, or the prosecutors simply need to state their intentions within that time frame?

    1. I’m going to guess the latter.

    2. This is a defeat, not a victory!

      So here’s how it’s going to work. The prosecutors are not going to drop many cases! They’re going to announce they want to move forward on most of them!

      Half these guys cannot afford to mount a defense. So they are going to face pressure to plead guilty to the reinstituted case. The guys who fight will remain in limbo, since the prosecutors will be able to go to judges and say, “we have 1,000 cases we wish to try, and if given an opportunity to try them we are confident we shall prevail, but given the lack of resources it may not be till 5 years from now that they are tried.”

      In the meantime, they’ll be offering plea deals that reduce the sentences, and guys will be jumping at the chance to get out a little earlier.

      When it comes to put up or shut-up and go to trial, the prosecutors can always agree to dismiss the charges or offer probation.

      And when the smoke clears, a fraction of the cases will have been dismissed. The rest will be reaffirmed by guilty pleas! And they will say, “see, the state police crime lab wasn’t messed up, they just had a few bad apples!!!!!”

      Maybe CJ Camellia should spend some time with some defense attorneys and learn how the fucking scam works.

      1. Yeah but what about… so… ok but…

        *sits back down*

      2. Thanks, Debbie Downer! CJ is new. We need to toughen him up.

      3. Yeah, the way the ACLU lawyer described it:

        The court has called on prosecutors to dismiss the drug charges against most of the Dookhan defendants and to provide meaningful notice to the remaining defendants, all by fixed deadlines

        Is significantly different than this:

        The court declined to take such sweeping action, instead ordering state prosecutors to dismiss all cases within 90 days it would not or could not reprosecute if given a new trial.

        That could mean exactly zero cases get dismissed, rather than most of the cases getting dismissed.

        I suspect that most of the possession defendants will be offered a deal before the 90 days runs – get out with time served, or we’ll file for a retrial – and they will take it.

      4. Yeah, there needs to be a deadline for new trials happening too, or it’s pretty empty.

      5. Yes, and public defenders are often in on it, unfortunately.

  3. What was Dookhan’s motive for making a test result positive?

    1. She worked for the state police crime lab. Guess what they were rewarded for generating?

    2. She was told to, but apparently wasn’t smart enough to cover her own ass.

  4. Annie Dookhan and the Massachusetts Drug Lab Crisis would be a pretty good name for a band.

    1. Annie Dook and The Medicine Show.

  5. Is it irony that Sonja farak will probably be used as a justification for continuing the WOD?

  6. I agree with the ACLU, vacate them all. I would go further and pay them reparations. You took away my freedom you pay the price.

    And that technician should spend their life in prison.

    1. ^So much this.

    2. Let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater. There are union pensions to consider here.

    3. She spent less than three years, I believe. Three fucking years. She is already out.

      Daniel Francis, who served more than five years in state prison before being deported to Jamaica.

      He spent more years in prison than she did.

      1. She should have been in for life. Hoe many thousands of people did she falsely imprison…

      2. America has a caste system to protect.

  7. If you have a crime lab, is it possible to institute a double-blind system?

    1. I think so; that alone would not prevent them from erring on the side of positive results in general, but if known negatives were randomly put into the system for testing (e.g. by defense attorneys), it could help.

      1. Double-blind should be required for admissibility.

        And, salt the workflow with fakes, so that you have real quality control.

        And, require public reporting of the accuracy of results (X fakes were incorrectly identified as the good stuff, etc.).

        1. I’ve had much the same idea, but the salt, when matching human samples, should always include samples from the judge and prosecutor.

        2. Salting the TSA with fakes to show its uselessness has only increased its powers.

  8. I found what the real cause of the scandal:

    “During Dookhan’s decade at the Hinton lab, it had been run by the Massachusetts Department of Health’s Office of Human Services. However, in a cost-cutting move, the Massachusetts General Court transferred control of the lab to the Massachusetts State Police forensics unit in 2011”


    1. Actually further reading suggests that it wasn’t until they transferred it to the state police control, that they started uncovering her shenanigans. If I read between the lines, her shit went unchecked for years until the state police stated noticing irregularities.

      1. So you’re saying is we should refocus the police’s efforts from drug arrests to making our bureaucracies, if they must exist, actually follow the fucking laws?(wink,wink?)

        1. The police will eventually learn the error of their ways.

        2. Being that the state police are often the only folks who ever look at holding other state agencies responsible for corruption, this is a fine idea.

  9. Good news. If the victims of the drug war and their allies could unite together and act with common purpose they could paralyze this administration of injustice by fighting every drug charge tooth and nail. A few heroes would pay the price in the beginning for refusing to plead guilty but eventually the system would collapse. We could support these first braves ones who sacrifice themselves by paying them a salary for serving time in prison.

    1. Most of the victims can’t afford attorneys. And if you can afford an attorney, the prosecutors will start the delaying-and-piling-on tactics until you can no longer afford your attorney.

  10. “On 22 November 2013, Dookhan was sentenced to three to five years imprisonment and two years probation by Judge Carol S. Ball in Suffolk Superior Court, after pleading guilty to crimes relating to falsifying drug tests.[1][13][14] This was greater than the one year sentence her defense requested but less than the five to seven year sentence requested by the prosecution.[13][14]

    Why not a separate charge for every case?

    She should be going to prison for a lot longer than that. She committed the same crime so many times, but it wasn’t just one crime.

    1. But that would require real work, Ken. We can’t have that. Need to cut those corners to meet those quotas!

      1. Tell her you’ll give her 20 years instead of a life sentence.

        I bet she put dozens of people away for longer than she went in.

  11. Since much of the so called ‘science’ behind things like blood splatter,bite makes,hair and fiber and that ‘magic box’ used for diu is junk I’d say there’s a lot more people charged that did nothing wrong..This women was just waging the war on drugs. Just like the cops with dogs ,those that ‘smell’ pot and those who think cat litter is meth.

  12. On a somewhat related subject, how many people in Mass. are currently being punished, or are suffering from having a criminal record for committing cannabis related crimes that aren’t crimes anymore?

    1. That’s tricky. I can’t speak for MA, but in other states, it could depend on the cannabis crime. Simple possession of a small amount, sure. But if you had a major grow operation– that’s still not legal. Selling it: not legal. And so on.

      But it’s still something I don’t have clear answers on and haven’t heard much talk about.

  13. Sounds like it was done out of pure laziness, too.

    She’d mark the tests as pass or fail without running them, and when retests came in that contradicted her original random results, she’d change them to whatever she’d run the first time.

    Oh my God, the progressives want to put these people in charge of our lives.

  14. From the linked article on Sonja Farak:

    “Sonja Farak told investigators she smoked crack every day at work. She also took methamphetamine, amphetamine, ketamine, ecstasy and LSD, both at work and at home. And it was all free, and often extremely high quality, because Farak was a chemist at the Massachusetts crime lab in Amherst responsible for testing drugs for police departments in criminal cases across the state.

    Farak’s eight-year complimentary drug buffet ended when co-workers finally noticed some missing samples in 2013…”

    So…a crime lab chemist was high on drugs every work day for EIGHT YEARS and no one noticed? Seriously? The whole crew should be thrown in prison for criminal stupidity.

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