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Defense lawyers ask court to toss 11,000 more cases in Amherst drug lab scandal

Former state chemist Sonja Farak pleaded guilty in 2014 to stealing narcotics samples from an evidence safe for personal use.
Former state chemist Sonja Farak pleaded guilty in 2014 to stealing narcotics samples from an evidence safe for personal use.(Don Treeger/The Republican via Associated Press/File 2013)

The state Supreme Judicial Court has been petitioned to throw out another 11,000 drug cases potentially tainted by the Amherst drug lab scandal. If the court agrees with a brief filed last week, the number of convictions dismissed due to misconduct by former chemist Sonja Farak and two former prosecutors could approach 19,000, potentially rivaling the number vacated in the Annie Dookhan scandal.

Defense advocates argue the court should vacate all cases involving drug samples tested at the Massachusetts crime lab in Amherst during Farak’s eight-year tenure there. Pointing to the lab’s lax security and Farak’s admission to stealing drugs from the evidence safe for her personal use, they contend there is a “cloud” not only over the cases that Farak was involved in, but “over the integrity of all testing at the Amherst lab.”

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In recent months, Massachusetts district attorneys have taken steps to dismiss approximately 8,000 cases in which Farak analyzed samples. The latest motion, filed by the Committee for Public Counsel Services and the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, would more than double the number of erased convictions.

Attorney General Maura Healey’s office declined to comment on the latest brief. But in previous filings, her office agreed with district attorneys that the only defendants whose convictions the SJC should consider for dismissal are those in which Farak signed analysis paperwork herself.

Farak pleaded guilty in early 2014 to stealing from narcotics samples for her own use and analyzing samples while impaired. It took another two years to uncover that Farak’s on-the-job drug use stretched back several years, even before she joined the Amherst lab in 2004.

The delay was due in large part to unethical behavior by two former state prosecutors, Anne Kaczmarek and Kris Foster, a judge ruled last summer. Kaczmarek and Foster, who worked under former attorney general Martha Coakley, withheld key evidence taken from Farak’s car. The judge deemed their deception “a fraud upon the court.”

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The latest brief filed by Public Counsel Services and the civil liberties union asked the SJC to impose fines against Kaczmarek, Foster, and the attorney general’s office to “deter future prosecutorial misconduct.”

The separate Dookhan drug lab scandal resulted in the dismissal of more than 21,000 cases in 2017. The SJC ordered prosecutors to “reduce substantially” the number of Dookhan-related convictions still on the books, but declined to dismiss all cases outright, noting “the absence of any evidence of misconduct by a prosecutor.”

“A dismissal with prejudice for government misconduct is very strong medicine,” the SJC ruled in January 2017.

In referring the current case to the full SJC in January, Justice Frank Gaziano asked the court to consider whether “the definition of ‘Farak defendants’ being employed by the district attorneys in this case is too narrow.”

The ACLU and public defenders wrote in their brief that the combination of Farak’s tampering plus prosecutorial misconduct by Kaczmarek and Foster warrants such strong medicine, calling dismissal of all Farak-related cases “the only appropriate remedy.”

This case will be argued before the SJC in May.


Shawn Musgrave can be reached at shawnmusgrave
@gmail.com. Reporting for this story was supported by the Fund for Investigative Journalism.