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    Judge dismisses more than 7,000 Amherst drug lab cases

    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.

    On Thursday, the state’s top court issued yet another sweeping dismissal order stemming from misconduct by a former chemist at the Amherst drug lab and two former state prosecutors. The order vacates an estimated 11,000 convictions in 7,700 criminal cases, the majority of them from Hampden County.

    “Today, the burden of an unjust criminal conviction has been lifted off the shoulders of thousands of people, people who can now apply for jobs and housing and move forward with their lives,” said Rebecca Jacobstein, a public defender with the Committee for Public Counsel, on a press call announcing the massive dismissal.

    The order is the latest development in the Amherst drug lab scandal. In January 2013, former Amherst lab chemist Sonja Farak was arrested on charges of stealing from the evidence locker to feed her own addictions. After pleading guilty, Farak was sentenced to 18 months in jail.

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    The scandal was compounded further by subsequent misconduct by two former prosecutors from the Massachusetts attorney general’s office. A judge ruled Anne Kaczmarek and Kris Foster, who worked under former attorney general Martha Coakley and have since left the office, blocked defense attorneys from obtaining key evidence about Farak’s drug use.

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    The thousands of cases vacated Thursday are those that were voluntarily dismissed by the state’s 11 district attorneys following litigation brought on behalf of “Farak defendants” by CPCS, the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, and Fick & Marx LLP.

    More than 6,100 of the dismissed convictions came from Hampden County, including 100 juvenile cases, according to figures provided by the ACLU of Massachusetts.

    Another 1,900 convictions originated in the Northwestern district attorney’s office, which serves Hampshire and Franklin counties and the town of Athol. Worcester and Berkshire counties each dismissed approximately 900 convictions, followed by Bristol County with 450 and Essex with 270.

    Suffolk and Middlesex counties each had approximately 200 convictions dismissed. Norfolk and Plymouth counties and the Cape and Islands district attorney’s office each had fewer than 100 convictions dismissed.

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    In total, approximately 300 juvenile cases were vacated.

    Supreme Judicial Court Justice Frank Gaziano, who authorized the dismissals, also signed the order in June 2017 that vacated more than 22,000 convictions tainted by Annie Dookhan’s evidence tampering at the Hinton drug lab in Jamaica Plain.

    Despite the dismissals, tThe Farak litigation continues and will go before the full SJC in May. Jacobstein and the ACLU are seeking dismissal of every drug case processed by the Amherst lab during Farak’s tenure.

    The Commonwealth has not responded to the defense advocates’ brief. Oral argument is scheduled for May 8.

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