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SJC says state’s investigation of Amherst crime lab was lacking

Massachusetts’ highest court said Wednesday that top state law enforcement officials failed to fully investigate how many times former state chemist Sonja Farak tampered with drug evidence during the nine years she worked at a now-closed state lab in Amherst.

In two unanimous rulings, the Supreme Judicial Court gave officials 30 days to decide whether to reopen the inquiry into thousands of evidence samples tested by Farak before she was arrested in 2013.

“The Commonwealth never conducted a thorough investigation of the Amherst drug lab,’’ Justice Francis X. Spina wrote for the court. “The precise timing and scope of Farak’s wrongdoing are unclear.’’

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If no new inquiry is launched, the SJC said, individual judges will have the authority to order widespread testing of drug samples to assess the extent of the problem.

Farak was prosecuted by the office of former attorney general Martha Coakley, and her case surfaced after another state chemist, Annie Dookhan, was found to have fabricated evidence in thousands of samples she tested at a second state lab in Jamaica Plain, possibly tainting as many as 40,000 cases. Dookhan is serving a three- to five-year prison sentence.

Wednesday’s rulings came out of motions for post-conviction relief from two men prosecuted in Hampden County courthouses. The SJC said that Bryant Ware will now get public funds to retest suspected cocaine from his 2009 case, and Erick Cotto Jr. can withdraw his guilty plea stemming from a 2007 arrest in Springfield.

“Farak’s criminal behavior, and the potential implications of such behavior on defendants who have been convicted of drug offenses based on evidence that she analyzed, present exceptional circumstances warranting this court’s immediate attention,” Spina wrote.

Coakley and former governor Deval Patrick’s administration examined Dookhan’s actions. But the SJC said the Farak investigation was brief and involved retesting fewer than 10 samples for which she was the primary analyst.

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“I think it was a complete and total abdication of their responsibilities,” said attorney Rebecca A. Jacobstein, who represented Cotto.

But a spokeswoman for the current attorney general, Maura Healey, said in a statement that the office “conducted a thorough criminal investigation into Farak’s misconduct at the Amherst lab and, as a result, she was sentenced to jail for her crimes.”

The office is reviewing the decisions from the SJC, said the spokeswoman, Emalie Gainey.

A spokesman for the state Executive Office of Public Safety and Security said the office is reviewing the court’s opinion and intends to work closely with prosecutors as they consider the next steps.

“In the investigation of Sonia Farak, as in all investigations, we followed the evidence, facts, and circumstances of that individual case,” spokesman Felix Browne said. “All available evidence indicated that Farak’s crimes began around late 2012 and were motivated by her desire to obtain drugs for personal use, rather than an attempt to influence criminal dispositions.”

Farak was sentenced to 18 months behind bars followed by five years of probation after she pleaded guilty in Hampshire Superior Court in January 2014 to four counts of tampering with evidence, four counts of stealing cocaine from the lab, and two counts of unlawful possession of cocaine.

The attorney who represented her did not respond to a call for comment Wednesday.

All the charges against Farak related to crimes that occurred in January 2013, according to court documents, but both SJC rulings mention four additional uncharged cases from 2012 in which Farak “may have removed cocaine from samples” submitted to the lab.

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An amicus brief filed by attorney Luke Ryan, who represented a defendant in another drug case, described documents officials found in Farak’s car that he said he viewed, which included diary cards that refer to urges to “take drugs.”

In an interview, Ryan said he believed the attorney general’s office faced a conflict of interest in investigating Farak.

“They were prosecuting Sonja Farak, but the more they looked into her misconduct, the more they realized it could affect the integrity of other cases,” Ryan said. “This wasn’t somebody who woke up the day before she was arrested and decided to start doing this.”

Christopher Ott, a spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, said in a statement that Wednesday’s decisions confirm that officials have done “the bare minimum necessary” to deal with scandals like those involving Farak and Dookhan. In the Dookhan case, he said, there is still no complete list of affected cases.


Evan Allen can be reached at evan.allen@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @evanmallen. John R. Ellement can be reached at ellement@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @JREbosglobe.