Lawyers have been unable to identify more than 31,000 people with cases possibly tainted by former state chemist Annie Dookhan, raising concerns that those people are being denied justice, an attorney told a judge on the state’s highest court on Thursday.
Benjamin H. Keehn, appellate counsel at the Committee for Public Counsel Services, highlighted the difficulty public defenders face in locating the vast majority of the more than 40,000 people potentially affected by Dookhan’s mishandling of drug evidence while working in the state drug lab.
Keehn made his arguments during a hearing before Supreme Judicial Court Justice Margot Botsford.
The public defender agency wants to be granted standing in a petition brought by the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts that seeks to effectively vacate all criminal cases tied to Dookhan. The civil liberties group argues that the state has failed to coordinate an adequate response to the discovery that Dookhan filed false test results, mixed drug samples, and lied under oath about her job qualifications.
Keehn said his organization has assigned lawyers to about 8,900 affected cases so far.
“The only entity in this debacle that is interested in actually identifying Dookhan defendants is the Committee for Public Counsel Services,” Keehn said. “The district attorneys quite candidly say, ‘We don’t have the time or money to do this work.’ ”
Dookhan is serving three to five years in state prison for perjury and tampering with evidence, among other crimes.
The offices of Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley and Essex District Attorney Jonathan W. Blodgett are named as respondents in the ACLU’s petition. The district attorneys object to the request to vacate all the cases and oppose the public defender agency’s efforts to join the petition.
Botsford heard arguments from Keehn, lawyers for the ACLU, Conley, and Blodgett for an hour and 15 minutes, but did not make a ruling.
Public defenders got the names of so-called Dookhan defendants and the numbers assigned to drug samples that were tested from an August report by special counsel David Meier, but Kheen said they still need key pieces of information. He said court docket numbers and police reports are necessary to identify and locate defendants, some of whom have common names.
The agency wants prosecutors to be ordered to provide those documents.
Botsford asked whether public defenders, prosecutors, and others could sit down and work out a system to link the names compiled by Meier with court dockets.
“It just seems like we can argue this in legal terms and we can spend a lot of time on that and a lot of energy and a lot of paper, but at the bottom of it is some pretty specific steps that may . . . be taken to see if we can’t unlock this puzzle,” Botsford said.
Prosecutors argued that the public defenders office is better equipped to identify affected individuals. They also said that district attorneys believe that those affected by Dookhan’s malpractice are already aware that their rights may have been violated.
“I don’t believe it’s a very reasonable position to suggest that there’s an unseen mass of people who are unaware of Miss Dookhan’s misconduct,” said Assistant Essex District Attorney Quentin R. Weld.
In Essex County, about 100 requests for new trials in cases tied to Dookhan have been filed in Superior Court , Weld said. About 30 of those petitions are pending, he said.
There have been about 700 requests for new trials filed in Suffolk County. with about 60 pending, said Jake Wark, a spokesman for Conley.
Wark said most of those cases were resolved because defendants withdrew their motions for new trials or pleaded guilty to the same offense for which they were initially convicted.
Daniel Marx, an attorney with Boston law firm Foley Hoag LLP, who worked with the ACLU on its petition, said people affected by Dookhan’s conviction do not all know what is going on.
“They don’t know what they can and should be doing,” Marx said.
The petition asks that if all the Dookhan cases are vacated, the court also order prosecutors to identify within 90 days which cases they would again pursue and prohibit them from seeking tougher penalties against those who have already been sentenced.
“Their ability to seek post-conviction relief is chilled by the fact that they are threatened with a reasonable fear of prosecutorial vindictiveness,” Marx said. “That’s the reason they’re not coming forward.”
Weld said the systems in place to handle cases tainted by Dookhan’s wrongdoing is equitable.
“It’s as fair as it can be, given the efforts of all parties involved to make it so,” he said.Laura Crimaldi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.