Metro

Court petition asks for dismissal of all cases touched by former drug lab chemist

Sonja Farak (left) stood during her arraignment in 2013.
Don Treeger/Springfield Union News/Associated Press
Sonja Farak (left) stood during her arraignment in 2013.

A new petition before the highest court in Massachusetts seeks full dismissal of thousands of drug convictions touched by a state chemist who stole from evidence at the Amherst drug lab.

The petition was filed Wednesday before the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court by two women convicted of drug possession based in part on evidence handled by Sonja Farak, the former chemist who was arrested for stealing from drug samples to support her addiction. After confessing in early 2014, Farak was sentenced to 18 months in jail.

Both Herschelle Reaves, of Springfield, and Nicole Westcott, of Granby, claim that the state failed to notify them of Farak’s misconduct even after her conviction more than three years ago. This deprived them the opportunity to challenge their convictions, they argue.

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The Committee for Public Counsel Services, the state’s public defender agency and also a party to the petition, claims that Reaves and Westcott are two of potentially thousands of defendants whose cases were tainted because of Farak.

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The petition is similar to litigation brought on behalf of defendants convicted using evidence analyzed by former Hinton lab chemist Annie Dookhan. Earlier this year, the SJC directed district attorneys to dismiss the vast majority of Dookhan-related cases. As a result, more than 20,000 convictions were erased.

But the Farak scandal goes beyond the chemist’s own misdeeds. In June, a Springfield judge found two former prosecutors from the attorney general’s office intentionally withheld crucial documents regarding Farak’s on-the-job drug abuse. The judge dismissed several convictions based on egregious and deliberate misconduct by Farak and prosecutors.

“This level of prosecutorial misconduct is unprecedented,” the latest Farak petition alleges, adding that the scandal “metastasized due to the intentional misconduct of the [attorney general’s office].”

District attorneys have agreed that Farak’s deeds alone were egregious enough to warrant granting new trials or dropping convictions in some cases, and have already done so for many defendants.

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“Although this is not a problem of our making, but rather stems from a problem that occurred within the state’s Public Health Department, it has fallen on the district attorneys to address it,” said Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan, President of the Massachusetts District Attorney’s Association. “Every district attorney’s office has already been actively engaged in identifying cases that may have been impacted and we are currently in the process of reviewing all affected cases to reach a resolution as expeditiously as possible.”

But, as with previous litigation on behalf of Dookhan defendants, this latest petition seeks a broader remedy.

“The only sensible next step is for all of the victims of the Amherst lab scandal to have their convictions vacated and their tainted drug charges dismissed,” said Carol Rose, director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, which is representing Reaves and Westcott on the petition, along with Boston firm Fick & Marx LLP.

The Massachusetts attorney general’s office said it has been working closely with district attorneys for many months to address the Farak scandal.

“The ACLU and CPCS were well aware of these efforts, but chose to file this petition anyway. We welcome their input as we move forward to provide the swift resolution that Farak defendants deserve,” said Jillian Fennimore, a spokeswoman for the attorney general.

Shawn Musgrave can be reached at shawnmusgrave@gmail.com. Reporting for this story was supported by the Fund for Investigative Journalism.