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Crime Lab Scandal Forces Prosecutors To Disavow Thousands Of Drug Convictions

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Crime Lab Scandal Forces Prosecutors To Disavow Thousands Of Drug Convictions


Due to a scandal involving a former state chemist who admitted faking tests, nearly 20,000 Massachusetts criminal drug cases are to be dismissed. This will mark the largest number of drug cases thrown out in U.S. history because of one person. chemist Annie Dookhan pleaded guilty in 2013 to meddling with evidence during her nine years working at a state crime lab in Boston. in an effort to make herself seem more efficient, Dookhan identified evidence as illegal narcotics without testing it. in January, The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ordered prosecutors across the state to dismiss the majority of convictions connected to that lab.

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica.
by Patrick G. Lee 

During her career as a Massachusetts lab chemist, Annie Dookhan has admitted to making up drug test results and tampering with samples, in the process helping send scores of people to prison. Her work may have touched some 24,000 cases.

On April 18, nearly five years after Dookhan’s confession, prosecutors submitted lists of about 21,587 tainted cases with flawed convictions that they have agreed to overturn. The state’s highest court must still formally dismiss the convictions.

Once that happens, many of the cleared defendants will be freed from the collateral consequences that can result from drug convictions, including loss of access to government benefits, public housing, driver’s licenses and federal financial aid for college. Convicted green card holders can also become eligible for deportation, and employers might deny someone a job due to a drug conviction on their record.

“The bad news is, it took a lot of time and litigation to get to this point. But the good news is, the courts are working really hard to make sure this relief is meaningful,” said Matthew Segal, the legal director of the ACLU of Massachusetts, who helped represent some of the Dookhan defendants.

The state’s public defender agency has opened a telephone hotline (888-999-2881) to field questions that defendants may have about their convictions and whether they were dismissed. Prosecutors have until mid-May to send notice to those whose convictions were not overturned — in about 320 cases — so that those defendants can decide whether to request a new trial. Those cases involve what prosecutors considered to be the most serious offenders, and prosecutors believe that they have enough clean evidence to defend the original convictions.

The earliest Dookhan cases go back to 2003, which means that some individuals have been living with a flawed drug conviction for nearly a decade and a half. Lawyers for defendants, prosecutors and the state’s top court are also grappling with the question of how to find and contact defendants who may have been deported from the U.S. due to their now-overturned convictions, Segal said.

As a result, the effects of having an illegitimate drug conviction wiped away may not be immediately felt by many defendants.

“The longer that these tainted convictions remained on the books, the more power they’ve had and the more sway they’ve had over people’s lives,” said Luke Ryan, a criminal defense lawyer who has been following the Dookhan fallout and is also representing clients harmed by another Massachusetts drug lab scandal. “They’ve made choices around where they live, whether they can apply for public housing. They’ve foregone educational opportunities because they didn’t think they would be able to take advantage of them, they haven’t pursued job opportunities that maybe they could have gotten.”

The prosecutors’ move to dismiss thousands of cases follows a January decision from Massachusetts’ highest court, which required them to decide which Dookhan convictions they would maintain and which ones they would dismiss. For years, prosecutors opposed any wholesale review of Dookhan-involved cases and at one point argued that they had no duty to send notice to convicted defendants of the possibly tainted evidence.

In September, prosecutors finally mailed out thousands of notices, but the letters lacked key information and were accompanied by an inadequate Spanish translation, according to the court. As of November, fewer than 2,000 Dookhan defendants had sought or gained relief from their convictions.

The most affected cases — nearly 8,000 — came from Suffolk County, which includes Boston. All of the convictions were based on “reliable, admissible evidence” in addition to Dookhan’s tainted test results, and many of the defendants have criminal records that extend beyond the Dookhan cases, according to a statement from the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office.

The county’s mass dismissal “represents a good faith effort to meet the high court’s goal of winnowing the number of Dookhan defendants down to a manageable number,” the statement said.

The hundreds of defendants whose Dookhan convictions were not overturned could still decide to challenge them by requesting a new trial. If they cannot afford their own lawyer, the state public defender agency is required to provide them one for free.

“It will be a challenge. But it’s certainly a whole lot more manageable than the prospect of 20,000,” said Nancy Caplan, the attorney leading the agency’s Dookhan response. “It’s within the realm of possibility.”

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  1. Aaron_of_Portsmouth April 20, 2017

    ACLU’s legal adviser said this revelation of wrongfully convicted people on drug offenses is good news and bad news. I and others here in this Forum would disagree.

    There’s nothing good that can come about after having railroaded citizens into prison because of the US’s militaristic posture when confronting any societal problem. How will years of life wasted under the shadow of being convicted—schooling opportunities lost; families broken up, with the families having to be humiliated by being made dependent on the state; children psychologically impaired as a result of having a parent locked up, and having no balanced parenting and male role models, leading often to truancy, gang participation, and impairment in school performance, leading to diminished job possibilities; health issues resulting from the stress of wrongful convictions, many prisoners having committed suicides as a result of the culture of abuse encouraged by prison wardens at the state and federal levels; and on and on.
    (The Party that loves to tout Fiscal responsibility has contributed mightily to the US debt, by forcing tax-payers and the US Treasury to pay extra for the short-sightedness and callous nature of the GOP over the decades. China and Mexico play a minor role in the US debt, comparatively speaking).

    And what contributed to this smearing of the concept of Justice? Quite likely the disease of Racism was a major factor, and this spiritual disease’s affliction of Nixon, Reagan’s souls, the GOP’s eager complicity, and lamentably Bill Clinton and several others on the Left. The latter getting in on the act in order to appear “tough of crime” so as to compete with the GOP’s stained image for the same motivation, in order to garner votes for elections—such is the state of decay of the American system of Governance.

    The result of this “War On Drugs” mentality has led to Prisons For Profit, and what better way to make money in this devilish scheme than to have a plentiful supply of prisoners. Which in turn depended on unusually harsh penalties for so much as smoking a joint. In the meantime, alcohol and opioid abuse were seen as harmless, and a rape culture flourished in the meantime, with FOX, Trump, and others being richly rewarded for their abuses.

    What kind of dead end has American Society come to? Is there a way out? YES!

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