The state has agreed to refund millions of dollars in fees and fines paid by more than 30,000 defendants whose drug convictions had to be overturned because they were based on testing performed by Annie Dookhan and one other disgraced state chemist.
The settlement of the class action lawsuit, expected to cost the state roughly $14 million, brings some measure of closure to the biggest drug lab scandal in American history, which led to the reversal of thousands of drug convictions and the closure of the state drug lab in Boston.
Dookhan and Sonja Farak have already served time in prison for falsifying drug analysis in criminal cases, but the impact of their crimes continues to be felt nearly a decade later.
“Dookhan and Farak’s crimes undermined the integrity of our justice system and impacted thousands of lives,” Attorney General Maura Healey, who defended the state, said in a statement. “From the start, we have recognized that defendants with vacated convictions should be refunded and are pleased to have engaged in a collaborative effort to reach a fair and efficient resolution for all involved.”
Each wrongfully convicted defendant will receive hundreds of dollars — and potentially more. The state has agreed to refund 10 types of fees and fines, including probation supervision fees, victim witness fees, court costs, DNA test fees, drug analysis fees, and driver’s license reinstatement fees, among others.
“We are hopeful that in addition to returning money to class members, this case will cause elected officials to see the wisdom of recent proposals to end the practice of treating the most financially insecure among us as a source of revenue,” said Luke Ryan, one of the lawyers who filed a class action lawsuit against the state on behalf of 31,000 defendants whose convictions were overturned because of suspect drug analyses.
The settlement must still be approved by a judge.
Dookhan became a household name after her arrest in September 2012, leaving a long trail of falsified drug analyses as well as e-mails that showed she was anything but a neutral witness in the justice system. Instead, Dookhan viewed herself as part of the prosecution team, openly saying that her goal was “getting (drug dealers) off the street.”
The case against Dookhan was clear: A year after she was arrested, she admitted her crimes. She pleaded guilty in November 2013 to obstruction of justice, tampering with evidence, and perjury. She was sentenced to three years in prison and was released in April 2016.
Farak’s misdeeds were, in some ways, far worse, but less well known. She used drugs she stole on the job, and the extent of her drug use was not revealed by prosecutors until almost two years after her arrest.
Beginning in 2017, the Supreme Judicial Court began vacating convictions based on drug testing performed by Dookhan and Farak.
“Vacating these wrongful convictions was a major victory and a significant first step in doing justice for the victims of the scandals at the Hinton and Amherst drug labs,” said William Fick, another lawyer in the case, “but much more work was needed to address a major collateral consequence of this unprecedented government misconduct.”
In a statement, ACLU of Massachusetts’ legal director Matthew Segal said the ACLU was “proud to work with public defenders and law firm partners to overturn wrongful convictions for these tens of thousands of people, and we are glad to see that these people will now be refunded some of the money that was wrongfully taken from them.
“We will continue to work toward a justice system to deliver fairness to, instead of extracting money from, the most vulnerable members of our communities.”
Ryan, Fick, and their partners brought the lawsuit seeking reimbursements for drug lab defendants’ fees after a 2017 Supreme Court ruling that required a state to repay fees, court costs, and restitution paid by a defendant whose conviction has been thrown out.
Once the settlement is approved, the funds will go into an account and an outside administrator will begin issuing refunds.
Amounts will be calculated based on records of the Trial Court, the Massachusetts State Police, Parole Board, and the Registry of Motor Vehicles. Class members will not have to document payments they made, and will receive a minimum of $150 each.
The administrator will create a website and call center to arrange for distribution of the funds and answer questions.
The state also agreed to pay the lawyers who brought the case more than $1.4 million in fees.
Though the exact amount defendants will receive is yet to be determined, some could get as much as $1,000, according to the attorney general’s office. Probation fees alone can total nearly $1,000 a year. And defendants cannot avoid paying them since failure to pay could result in a probation violation that would send them to jail.
“That’s beautiful,” said Richard Salomon last year when he learned about a potential refund. He served six months in jail after pleading guilty to a cocaine offense, but his conviction was vacated because the drugs in his case were tested by Dookan.
“It’s only right,” he said. “They ruined a lot of people’s lives. I would put the money in savings for now, to eventually buy a house and take care of my family.”
After a year, according to the settlement agreement, any uncashed checks will be paid to Community Legal Aid, the Transformational Prison Project, and the Tufts Education Reentry Network program.
Andrea Estes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.