State chemist may have affected more drug cases than previously known
For years, Sonja Farak was addicted to cocaine, methamphetamine, and amphetamines, the kind of drugs usually bought from street dealers in covert transactions that carry the constant risk of arrest.
But between 2004 and 2013, the state chemist never left the office to feed her addiction.
“She obtains the drugs from her job at the state drug lab, by taking portions of samples that have come in to be tested,” one of Farak’s therapists wrote after an April 2009 counseling session, according to newly public treatment records filed in Hampden Superior Court. Farak told her therapist the drugs gave her energy, helped her to “get things done and not procrastinate.”
Now, defense lawyers say the discovery of Farak’s confessions in therapy prove that her evidence tampering — which state law enforcement officials had initially insisted was confined to a handful of cases starting in 2012 — was far worse than previously disclosed. About 10,000 or more prosecutions may have been tainted, they said.
“What we are dealing with is thousands of alleged drug samples at the Amherst lab that were analyzed for use in court by someone who has admitted to widespread tampering of the samples,’’ said Randolph Gioia, deputy chief counsel for the Committee on Public Counsel Services, the state’s public defender agency. “And equally importantly, while working at the lab, she admitted to being under the influence of crack cocaine, powder cocaine, methamphetamine, and other drugs.’’
Farak’s actions, Gioia said, mean that “all of the cases she touched are corrupted and the convictions should be thrown out.’’
Gioia called for an “independent, completely transparent investigation’’ into the thousands of people potentially affected by Farak’s tampering.
A spokesman for the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security declined to comment, citing what he called an ongoing investigation by current Attorney General Maura Healey’s office. Healey was not involved in the original Farak investigation and defense attorneys credit her for committing to resolving the issue quickly.
“We are deeply concerned whenever the integrity of the justice system is in question,” said Healey spokesman Christopher Loh in a statement. “Our office has volunteered to lead the Commonwealth’s investigation into the timing and scope of Sonja Farak’s misconduct to explore how many cases could be potentially affected.”
Farak was arrested in January 2013 and prosecuted by the office of former attorney general Martha Coakley. Coakley declined comment Thursday and referred all questions to her successor.
Farak’s case surfaced months after another state chemist, Annie Dookhan, was arrested in September 2012 and 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. The Dookhan case is not believed to be connected to the Farak case.
Farak pleaded guilty in Hampshire Superior Court in early 2014 to four counts of tampering with evidence, four counts of stealing cocaine from the lab, and two counts of unlawful possession of cocaine, and was sentenced to 18 months behind bars. She has since been released from custody, officials said Thursday.
In April, the state’s highest court found that top state law enforcement officials had failed to fully investigate the scope of Farak’s wrongdoing, noting that fewer than 10 samples for which she was the primary analyst were retested. The Supreme Judicial Court gave officials 30 days to decide whether to reopen the inquiry into thousands of evidence samples tested by Farak.
But defense attorneys were digging deeper, and two of them, Luke Ryan and Rebecca Jacobstein, obtained Farak’s medical records.
The records show that Farak’s drug theft and use began in 2004, a full eight years before the state contended, and never stopped. She told her therapists she used multiple drugs during the workday, feared that other staff knew about her behavior, and at one point in 2010, wondered if she were “psychotic.”
Among the roster of substances she consumed, all stolen from her lab: crack, cocaine, ketamine, acid, amphetamine, methamphetamine, MDMA, and marijuauna, according to the records.
Farak’s attorney did not respond to a request for comment, and Farak could not be reached.
The state’s district attorneys are undertaking research similar to that performed in the wake of the Dookhan scandal, identifying any cases in which Farak was assigned and providing docket numbers and other information to the attorney general’s investigators, said Jake Wark, a spokesman for Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley, who is president of the state District Attorneys Association.
Northwestern District Attorney David E. Sullivan said in a statement he is tracking the results from Healey’s investigation. Like Gioia, he called for “an independent, comprehensive, and transparent’’ investigation.
It is too soon, Loh said, to say how many people are impacted by Farak’s misconduct.
But Ryan, one of the lawyers who brought the medical records to light, said Farak was assigned to test about 29,000 drug samples over the course of her nine-year career, and that the estimate of 10,000 affected defendants was “fairly conservative.”
It is imperative, he said, that officials begin compiling a list of names, even if some have completed their sentences.
“The collateral consequences of drug convictions are enormous — people who don’t have driver’s licenses, people who have been denied employment, people who have been denied housing, people who have immigration consequences, people in federal court being sentenced as subsequent offenders,” he said. “The ripple effects of all this are pretty profound.”
Ryan, who represents several defendants whose samples purportedly were tested by Farak, said some mental health records were found in Farak’s car in 2013, but when he asked to view evidence seized from the car, the attorney general’s office said its contents were “irrelevant” and his request was denied.
When Ryan was finally able to view the evidence after Farak pleaded guilty, he found diary writings, apparently from 2011, about urges to “take drugs,” “shame” over her failure to resist, and notes about when she would be alone and able to get away with using.
Gioia called the Farak case “déjà vu’’ because of its similarities to the Dookhan case. Like Farak, Dookhan’s misdeeds were initially dismissed as a minor issue by government lawyers.
But, under prodding by the defense, the Dookhan scandal grew to encompass tens of thousands of defendants, triggered millions of tax dollars in spending on defense lawyers, the hiring of retired Superior Court judges to review appeals, and the hiring of special staffers in district attorneys’ offices to search nine years of records for Dookhan links.
“It’s a disaster for the justice system. And it’s a disaster on top of the existing disaster involving the Annie Dookhan scandal,” said Matthew Segal, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts of the Farak case. “The focus needs to be on what is the smart way to deal with these twin scandals now.”
The solution, he said, is not to re-litigate affected cases.
“Our position is that many of these cases should be simply dismissed,” he said. “And we should go about the business of restoring the integrity of the justice system.”