A federal judge has awarded more than $2 million to a man wrongly convicted based on evidence falsified by Annie Dookhan, the former state chemist who created a multimillion-dollar crisis in the state’s criminal justice system. It is the first case in which Dookhan has been ordered to compensate any of the thousands of defendants whose cases she tainted.
US District Judge Indira Talwani determined that Leonardo Johnson, 53, of Dorchester, is entitled to compensatory and punitive damages for the 15 months he served in prison, because Dookhan gave “false testimony to convict an innocent man.”
Dookhan has 30 days to appeal the award amount. Her attorney, Nicolas Gordon of Mansfield, did not respond to questions about the ruling.
“Judge Talwani’s damages assessment provides fair and just compensation for Mr. Johnson, who has suffered and continues to suffer emotional and financial devastation,” said attorney Ilyas Rona, who represents Johnson. “While we are pleased with the outcome for Leonardo Johnson, we are mindful of the other victims who have received nothing.”
It remains unclear how much of the total award Dookhan will be able to pay, and how quickly.
“We are continuing to explore all available options to get our client the best possible result, given the ordeal that he went through,” Rona said.
Johnson was arrested in November 2008 in Chinatown. When an undercover police officer asked him for a “twenty” — a $20 rock of crack cocaine — he saw an opportunity to make some cash to buy drugs for himself, he testified at trial. At the time, Johnson was addicted to crack cocaine, he told the court.
But the small nugget Johnson sold the officer was not, in fact, crack. He later testified it was a small piece of peanut or similar tree nut. He was surprised that an experienced officer even believed it contained any drugs. Johnson had previous arrests for drug possession but said he was never a dealer.
Minutes after the transaction, officers from the Boston Police Department’s drug unit arrested Johnson for distributing narcotics in a school zone.
Unlike the vast majority of people facing drug charges, Johnson refused to take a plea deal. Confident that the substance he sold contained no drugs, he took the stand at trial in November 2009. To Johnson’s surprise, Dookhan, who at the time was a forensic chemist at the Hinton drug lab in Jamaica Plain, testified that chemical tests confirmed the presence of cocaine in the sample.
“I knew she was lying,” Johnson said in an interview. “Ain’t no way, no how a cashew can turn into crack.”
The jury quickly returned a guilty verdict, and Johnson was sentenced to two years and one day in prison.
By the time Dookhan was charged with evidence tampering in September 2012, Johnson had served his sentence in full. He successfully petitioned for a new trial, and Suffolk County prosecutors dropped their case against him in April 2013, citing the ongoing criminal investigation into Dookhan.
Dookhan pleaded guilty in November 2013 to all charges of evidence tampering, including contaminating samples intentionally and testifying on results for tests she never ran. She served three years in prison and was released on parole in April 2016.
The state inspector general ordered retesting on Johnson’s sample in 2014 as part of its review of the Hinton lab. Out of more than 600 analyzed, his was one of 11 samples for which additional testing failed to detect any illegal substances.
As the scope of Dookhan’s misconduct became clear, some predicted a wave of lawsuits would be filed against her, her supervisors, and other state officials. But the onslaught never came.
Only seven others have sued Dookhan or her supervisors in federal court. Two cases were dismissed outright, and three are ongoing. A fourth ongoing case, in which the plaintiff alleges Dookhan falsely certified that a counterfeit substance contained cocaine, was moved to state court.
Last fall, a federal jury declined to grant any money to a Boston man, David Jones, who served 2½ years in prison on distribution charges. Jones did not name Dookhan in his suit, only her superiors at the state health department. He argued that these officials violated his civil rights by failing to catch “unmistakable warning signs” of Dookhan’s misconduct.
The jury found that Dookhan’s three supervisors were not liable for any deprivation of Jones’s rights.
Johnson similarly blamed his incarceration not only on Dookhan but also on her co-workers and superiors. He named another chemist who worked closely with her, three of her supervisors, and the director of the crime lab in his August 2014 federal complaint.
“The lab officials who allowed this to happen never accepted responsibility for their own wrongdoing,” said Rona.
Although the state inspector general’s office reported that Dookhan was the “sole bad actor,” it determined the “most glaring factor” that facilitated her misconduct was a “failure of management.” Johnson’s complaint cited another inspector general finding that Hinton lab management inappropriately decided not to disclose inconsistent testing results to prosecutors and defense attorneys, such as the mixed results from tests run on Johnson’s sample for the presence of cocaine.
One of Dookhan’s supervisors named in Johnson’s suit, Julie Nassif, was fired when Dookhan’s misconduct came to light. Another, Charles Salemi, retired soon afterward, and the director of the lab, Dr. Linda Han, likewise resigned in September 2012. Elisabeth O’Brien , the lab’s evidence officer, and Daniel Renczkowski, a fellow chemist, still work as state-employed forensic chemists, according to public payroll records.
All five denied wrongdoing, characterizing Johnson’s allegations as vague and subjective. Dookhan, however, filed no response of any kind in the proceedings, neither in response to Johnson’s complaint nor to his demand for monetary damages.
Johnson simultaneously sued the state under a Massachusetts law which provides compensation for the wrongfully convicted.
The state attorney general’s office settled that suit for $250,000 last fall, a common outcome for wrongful conviction claims. As part of the settlement, Johnson agreed to remove all parties except Dookhan from his federal lawsuit. The settlement does not admit any culpability on the part of Nassif, Han, Salemi, O’Brien, or Renczkowski.
The judge reduced the federal damages award by the amount already paid by the state.
Shawn Musgrave can be reached at shawnmusgrave@ gmail.com. Reporting for this story was supported by the Fund for Investigative Journalism.