A Supreme Judicial Court justice has asked the full panel of the state’s highest court to consider an aggressive request to dismiss the tens of thousands of drug convictions tied to Annie Dookhan, the disgraced drug lab chemist.
Associate Justice Margot Botsford also asked the full court to consider recommending more comprehensive guidance for how the justice system should respond to one of the worst criminal justice scandals in the state in recent history.
“I believe that the interests of justice require the court to attempt to resolve as many of the common issues as can properly be resolved at this juncture and on this record,” Botsford said in a five-page report to her fellow justices.
She added, “I am not suggesting that the court will be able to produce in this case the heretofore elusive ‘global remedy’. I am only suggesting that all concerned might benefit from the court’s consideration of the feasibility of exploring the possibility, and any guidance that the court can give and any process it might be able to supply at this time in furtherance of that end.”
The request was based on a petition that was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, which argued that the state has failed to implement a proper response to the drug lab scandal.
Acting as a single justice, Botsford heard arguments in July before determining the request should go before the full court of seven justices. She said the full court could hear arguments by January.
Matthew Segal, legal director for the ACLU of Massachusetts, welcomed the decision Wednesday.
“This is a good result and it means the case is moving forward, that the court is taking the drug lab scandal petitions seriously,” he said.
But Jake Wark, a spokesman for Suffolk District Attorney Daniel Conley, who is one of the targets of the ACLU petition, said the system is working and that he expects the full court to reject the ACLU’s requests.
“They’re unprecedented and unnecessary given the rate at which Dookhan cases are being brought and resolved under the existing rules of evidence,” Wark said. “They are, frankly, transparent and self-serving demands to exploit a crisis that is finally under control.”
A state investigator determined that Dookhan was involved in testing drugs from more than 40,000 cases at the former Hinton laboratory in Jamaica Plain from 2003 to 2012, possibly tainting the integrity of the evidence in those cases. Dookhan admitted to submitting false reports and tampering with evidence. The 37-year-old pleaded guilty last November and was sentenced to 3 to 5 years in prison.
After the scandal broke, defense lawyers began seeking new trials for defendants who were convicted of crimes based on evidence tested by Dookhan, and in some cases people who were convicted or were facing trial were released from prison while their cases were pending.
The ACLU argued, however, that the state needed to do more to notify defendants that their convictions may have been based on tainted evidence and that they may be entitled to new hearings.
Under the ACLU’s proposal, the court would vacate all cases tied to Dookhan, and prosecutors would have to decide within 90 days which cases to re-prosecute.
For the cases re-prosecuted, the petition also asks that prosecutors be prohibited from seeking tougher penalties against those who have already been sentenced. The ACLU argued that some defendants who have decided against challenging their convictions made that choice out of fear they would get a tougher sentence.
The Supreme Judicial Court had in an earlier decision (known as the Scott decision) declared that any evidence tied to Dookhan should be suspicious, but the court ruled that it was up to each defendant who pleaded guilty to prove that he or she would not have done so if they had known about Dookhan’s misdeeds.
“I ask the full court, when deciding the case, to consider whether it might be fruitful for the court to undertake . . . the possibility of a more systemic approach to addressing the impacts of the controversy than the individualized, case-specific remedy that the court envisioned in Scott,” Botsford said, “and if so, what the process for such an examination might be.”
Wark argued that the Scott decision has already set up a proper framework for the courts to follow.
“What the defendants and [their lawyers] are asking for wouldn’t merely upend that framework,” Wark said. “It would abandon hundreds of years of Massachusetts jurisprudence to make sweeping changes that are neither necessary nor appropriate for resolving criminal cases.”