The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts called on a justice with the state’s highest court Thursday to effectively vacate all of the 40,000-plus criminal cases tied to Annie Dookhan, the disgraced former drug analyst, saying the state has failed to coordinate a proper response to the worst scandal to hit the criminal justice system in recent times.
In a pointedly worded petition, the group asked the Supreme Judicial Court justice to invoke the court’s authority to address what it called the state’s failure to develop a systematic response to the scandal after Dookhan’s misconduct at the state laboratory in Jamaica Plain was discovered in June 2011.
The petition asks the justice assigned to the case to vacate all of the drug cases and convictions of 40,000-plus defendants and to order prosecutors to determine within 90 days whether they want to pursue individual cases. If so, the prosecutors would have six months to resolve the cases with a trial or a guilty plea.
The petition, crafted along with the ACLU’s national office and Boston-based law firm Foley Hoag, also asks the justice to prohibit prosecutors from seeking tougher penalties against people who have already been convicted and have been sentenced yet want a review of their cases. It says the risk of tougher punishment has intimidated defendants from filing legitimate challenges to their convictions.
The civil liberties group called that an interference with their constitutional right to a fair trial.
“The alternative to this approach has been tried, and it has failed,” said Matthew R. Segal, legal director for the ACLU of Massachusetts. “This is the first case designed to deliver a fair, efficient, and comprehensive approach to the tainted convictions stemming from the ongoing Hinton lab scandal.”
The ACLU asked that the petition be directed to Justice Margot Botsford, who has heard another Dookhan-related case.
The petition was brought on behalf of three defendants from Suffolk County and Essex County who pleaded guilty to drug offenses but said they would have challenged their cases or sought lesser punishment had they known Dookhan was involved in testing the drug evidence.
One of the defendants, Miguel Cuevas, said that he filed a motion to withdraw his guilty plea in October 2012, but that the motion is still pending. Another defendant, Kevin Bridgeman, who pleaded guilty after prosecutors agreed to drop some charges, said he fears prosecutors would bring all of the charges again and seek a tougher punishment if he were to appeal.
“Without the requested remedy from this court, they have no meaningful relief in sight,” the defendants’ lawyers said in the court petition. The ACLU pointed to a case in Essex County in which a defendant received a harsher sentence in a trial after withdrawing a guilty plea.
Jake Wark, a spokesman for the Suffolk district attorney’s office, questioned the timing of the petition and said it is “muddying the waters and then throwing a red herring in.”
He said Suffolk prosecutors moved quickly in 2012 to offer new trials, bail, or stays of sentences for defendants, particularly those who were in prison or about to be sentenced.
In cases in which Dookhan directly tainted evidence, the prosecutor dismissed cases, he said.
“The actual allegations of known malfeasance represent a tiny fraction of Dookhan’s cases,” Wark said.
Carrie Kimball Monahan, a spokeswoman for Essex District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett, said both the district and superior court systems already have set up special court sessions for defendants connected to Dookhan and the Hinton drug laboratory, where Dookhan worked.
“Any of the defendants who have requested a hearing have been granted a hearing,” she said, noting that in some cases the drug evidence was preserved and can be retested.
The ACLU argued that, of the total defendants connected to Dookhan, only 8,700 have been assigned lawyers, and only a tiny fraction of those with lawyers have had a day in court.
Meanwhile, the scandal continues to play out in courts across the state.
The Supreme Judicial Court already is considering several cases from Suffolk County that will ultimately determine what standards prosecutors and the courts should follow in determining whether a defendant should be entitled to a new trial.
Prosecutors have opposed a blanket dismissal of cases, pointing out that defendants could also have been implicated in other crimes. Last month, for instance, a Roslindale man was sentenced to 2½ years in prison in Norfolk Superior Court for charges including assault and battery with a dangerous weapon and for leading police officers into a dangerous chase. The sentence was handed out even after prosecutors agreed to drop the drug charges.
Authorities determined that Dookhan, 36, who worked at the lab for close to a decade, tampered with drug evidence for years by mixing substances or falsely reporting test results. She later claimed she was rushing her work so that she could boost her job performance. She pleaded guilty in November and was sentenced to three to five years in prison.
The state Office of Inspector General is reviewing the overall conditions at the Hinton laboratory, which has been closed. A report is expected by the end of January.