In a hearing Tuesday at the state Supreme Judicial Court, prosecutors revealed plans to dismiss many of the thousands of cases tainted by a forensic chemist at the Amherst drug lab and subsequent misconduct by two state prosecutors. More than 6,000 cases are under review by each of the eleven district attorney’s offices in Massachusetts, prosecutors said.
But given the misdeeds by multiple parties, the presiding judge suggested the top court may order even more dramatic relief for the Amherst scandal than it did for the Annie Dookhan scandal earlier this year, when thousands of cases were vacated.
Sonja Farak, a chemist at the Amherst lab, was arrested in January 2013 and charged with stealing from evidence and using drugs while analyzing samples. In June, a judge determined that two former state prosecutors — Anne Kaczmarek and Kris Foster — committed misconduct in handling evidence of Farak’s drug use.
In a ruling that dismissed a handful of cases, Judge Richard Carey of the Hampden Superior Court found Kaczmarek and Foster “tampered with the fair administration of justice” and intentionally withheld documents from defendants who sought to challenge Farak’s evidence analysis.
Two women filed suit against the Commonwealth in September in a bid to vacate all convictions based on evidence touched by Farak. They are represented by public defenders from the Committee for Public Counsel Services, the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, and attorney Daniel Marx of Fick & Marx in Boston.
Similar litigation over Dookhan’s tampering at the Hinton drug lab resulted in the dismissal of more than 20,000 convictions last April. The SJC left it to prosecutors’ discretion which cases to toss, directing them to “reduce substantially” the convictions still on the books.
The current litigants press for a “global remedy” the SJC previously declined in its Dookhan rulings — dismissal of all cases related to Farak in light of the combined actions of Farak, Kaczmarek, and Foster.
“This level of prosecutorial misconduct is unprecedented,” their petition asserts.
At Tuesday’s hearing, Justice Frank Gaziano gave the Massachusetts attorney general’s office and district attorneys until Nov. 30 to respond, and made clear his expectation that the final ruling on the Farak scandal might go farther than rulings on Dookhan.
Massachusetts district attorneys previously conceded that Farak’s actions warrant a presumption of egregious misconduct in every case she handled.
Assistant District Attorney Thomas Townsend of the northwestern district attorney’s office, which covers Hampshire and Franklin counties and the town of Athol.
Townsend said his office knows of about 1,300 Farak-related cases.
The Hampden district attorney’s office has identified about 4,300 defendants, according to Assistant District Attorney Bethany Lynch.
Berkshire has approximately 600 cases, Middlesex has about 250 cases, and Worcester has identified about 65 cases, so far, prosecutors said at the hearing. A spokesman for the Suffolk district attorney said their office has approximately 135 cases. Essex has about 500 cases, according to a spokeswoman.
Bristol County has approximately 300 cases, according to district attorney spokesman Gregg Miliote. Prosecutors in Norfolk estimate they will dismiss approximately 100 cases related to the Farak scandal, per spokesman David Traub, while the Cape & Islands District Attorney’s Office has between 50 to 75 cases to review, according spokeswoman Tara Miltimore.Shawn Musgrave can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Reporting for this story was supported by the Fund for Investigative Journalism.