Metro

6,000 drug cases to be dismissed after misconduct by chemist, prosecutors

Sonja Farak was arraigned at Eastern Hampshire District Court in Belchertown in 2013.
Don Treeger/The Republican via Associated Press, Pool, File 2013
Sonja Farak was arraigned at Eastern Hampshire District Court in Belchertown in 2013.

Massachusetts district attorneys on Thursday said they would dismiss more than 6,000 drug convictions due to misconduct by a former drug lab chemist and two former state prosecutors.

It marks the second time this year that thousands of drug charges were wiped away due to official misconduct.

The latest dismissals follow years of litigation over crimes committed by Sonja Farak, a former chemist at the Amherst drug lab. Farak was arrested in 2013 on charges of stealing from the evidence locker to feed her own addiction. She pleaded guilty in 2014.

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Farak’s misconduct was compounded further by two former state prosecutors in the attorney general’s office who withheld evidence regarding the scope of the chemist’s crimes. Last June, a Springfield judge ruled that the prosecutors committed a “fraud upon the court.”

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Two women convicted for drug possession based in part on evidence handled by Farak filed a lawsuit in the state Supreme Judicial Court in September, alleging that prosecutors never notified them of the misconduct findings against either Farak or the prosecutors. In early November, a judge ordered all Massachusetts district attorneys to review their case files for Farak-related convictions and identify charges they were willing to dismiss.

The order followed a similar protocol mandated by the SJC for cases tainted by Annie Dookhan, who worked as a chemist in the Hinton drug lab in Boston until her arrest in 2012 on charges of evidence tampering. After the SJC ordered prosecutors to review Dookhan-related cases, seven district attorneys dropped a total of more than 20,000 cases in June.

The Hampden district attorney’s office alone agreed to dismiss nearly 4,000 cases related to Farak, according to numbers provided by the ACLU of Massachusetts. The Northwestern district attorney’s office is seeking to dismiss “every single drug conviction” tainted by Farak, which comes to nearly 1,500 cases, according to an e-mailed statement.

Middlesex County agreed to dismiss all of its Farak cases, a total of 245 cases. Essex County indicated that it will dismiss all juvenile and district court cases, Plymouth County will dismiss approximately 100 cases, Worcester County will dismiss more than 200, Bristol County will dismiss 203 cases, Suffolk County will dismiss all of its 134 Farak cases, and Norfolk County will dismiss convictions for 76 defendants, according to e-mailed statements.

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No counts have been provided by the Berkshire district attorney or the Cape and Islands district attorney’s office.

One of the lawsuit plaintiffs, Nicole Westcott of Granby, said at a news conference that dismissing convictions like hers will help people recovering from addiction find housing and other services they might need.

“I’m trying to give people hope,” Westcott said, adding that she wants Farak and the two prosecutors to be held accountable but does not harbor any personal resentment.

Westcott and fellow plaintiff Herschelle Reaves are represented by the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts and law firm Fick and Marx. The state’s public defender agency, the Committee for Public Counsel Services, is also party to the suit.

The two state prosecutors who committed misconduct — Anne Kaczmarek and Kris Foster — both worked under then-Massachusetts attorney general Martha Coakley, and have since left their positions for other jobs in state government.

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Attorneys from both the ACLU and CPCS indicated they will press forward with litigation until every single Farak-related case is dismissed, and indicated at the press conference they believe the state attorney general’s office bears considerable blame.

“There can be zero tolerance for a war on drugs that is fought by committing fraud on a court of justice,” said Randy Gioia, deputy chief counsel for CPCS, in a prepared statement.

In filings with the SJC, prosecutors from the office of current attorney general Maura Healey enumerated steps her staff has taken to address the scandal, including searching its own databases for potentially affected cases and providing assistance to Hampden County prosecutors.

“Staff in the AG’s office have been working hard for months to review databases, identify the Farak defendants, and secure their speedy relief. For the ACLU to suggest otherwise is false and irresponsible,” said Jillian Fennimore, a spokeswoman for Healey, in an e-mailed statement.

Shawn Musgrave is an investigative reporter based in Boston. He can be reached at shawnmusgrave@gmail.com or on Twitter @shawnmusgrave. Reporting for this story was supported by the Fund for Investigative Journalism.