The state’s highest court said Wednesday that people convicted on drug charges in cases that involved a disgraced state chemist, Annie Dookhan, can seek new trials.
Last year, the Supreme Judicial Court gave special permission to people to undo their pleas if they had pleaded guilty to drug charges in Dookhan-related cases. On Wednesday, it ruled that the same protection must be extended to some defendants who went to trial.
“Regardless whether a defendant pleads guilty to a drug offense or is found guilty at trial . . . the evidence is still potentially tainted by Dookhan’s misconduct,’’ Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants wrote for the court. “The taint is still attributable to the government [because] it may be impossible for the defendant to prove [their] case . . . was actually tainted by Dookhan’s misconduct.’’
Dookhan worked in a Department of Public Health lab in Jamaica Plain from 2003 to 2012, testing suspected drugs. She admitted to tampering with samples, forging results in favor of law enforcement. Her actions may have compromised 24,000 cases. She served a three-year sentence for perjury and evidence tampering.
Jake Wark, a spokesman for Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley, said prosecutors believe the SJC’s ruling would have a negligible impact, since few of the 7,491 individuals connected to Dookhan in Suffolk County went to trial. Most pleaded guilty, he said.
“Given the speed and efficiency with which we’ve tackled the [Dookhan] crisis, we’re confident it will present a minimal disruption’’ to the court system, Wark wrote in an e-mail.
In Wednesday’s ruling, the court threw out the 2006 Suffolk Superior Court drug trafficking conviction of Daniel Francis. The court made clear that Boston police and prosecutors were not aware of Dookhan’s misdeeds at the time.
Francis’s appellate attorney, David J. Rotondo, called the ruling a positive development for his client and for others like him who went to trial but never challenged the key forensic evidence used against them — the drugs.
He said Francis served at least five years in state prison, was deported to his native Jamaica, and may now have a chance to return to the United States and clear his name.
The ruling was also welcomed by the Massachusetts Bar Association, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the Committee for Public Counsel Services, which have been pushing the SJC and prosecutors to aggressively respond to the crisis created by Dookhan’s misdeeds.
“We think that the level of misconduct and misrepresentation and fraud that occurred in the Annie Dookhan matter rises to the level of not being constitutionally sound,” said Martin W. Healy, chief legal counsel of the bar association. “Anybody that’s convicted by a jury of their peers deserves to be either tried anew or the decision should be dismissed or vacated altogether.”
Benjamin Selman, who filed a friend of the court brief on behalf of the Committee on Public Counsel Services, called the ruling an “important step.’’
“The decision is sound, well-reasoned, and represents another important step toward rectifying the tremendous damage that the [DPH] scandal has done to our criminal justice system and the people of Massachusetts,’’ he wrote, adding that the CPCS will push for a “comprehensive remedy” for the thousands of people affected by Dookhan.
Matthew Segal, legal director of the ACLU of Massachusetts, said in a statement that “relitigating these tainted cases is inconsistent with the glaring need to restore integrity to the Commonwealth’s justice system.” Instead, he said, drug cases tainted by Dookhan should be dropped.
Segal also noted that many Dookhan-related defendants have not yet gotten justice, despite the passage of five years since she was caught.
During that time, he noted, another drug lab scandal emerged, involving another disgraced state chemist, Sonja Farak, who worked for eight years at a now-shuttered drug lab in Amherst.
Farak allegedly ingested the drugs she was supposed to be testing nearly every day of her career.
Defense lawyers are pushing for the courts to revisit those drug convictions, too.
Luke Ryan, one of the attorneys leading the push in Western Massachusetts, said the new standard in the Dookhan SJC case may ultimately apply to trials connected to Farak.
“It fills an important gap. It answers an unknown,” Ryan said of Wednesday’s decision.
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