The full dimensions of the tragic mess left behind by the former state chemist Annie Dookhan, who is serving time in prison for tampering with drug evidence, finally became apparent this week. Just as clear is the proper legal remedy: Thousands of convictions of people who pleaded guilty when confronted with Dookhan’s tainted evidence must be overturned.
On Wednesday, the Supreme Judicial Court rightly declared that government misconduct will be presumed, instead of litigated on a case-by-case basis, in circumstances involving defendants who took plea bargains based on Dookhan’s tainted testing or testimony. The ruling could serve to overturn thousands of convictions — including those of many who may well be guilty — but is a simple matter of fairness: In some cases, innocent defendants might have pleaded guilty for fear of harsher results. And in most cases, defendants agreed to deals that they would not have otherwise accepted had they known the truth about the questionable quality of the evidence against them.
Shortly before the court ruling, the state inspector general released a report citing Dookhan as the only “bad actor’’ involved with the intentional tampering of evidence at the former Hinton drug laboratory in Jamaica Plain. But the report also made clear that a large and incompetent supporting cast made it possible for Dookhan to fake her test results. The training of chemists at the lab was “wholly inadequate,’’ according to the report. Workers failed to follow sound procedures when weighing drugs in certain trafficking cases and failed, at times, to provide potentially exculpatory evidence. Standards and management oversight were lax, when they existed at all.
Neither the SJC nor the inspector general offered firm recommendations on how best to handle the thousands of cases touched by Dookhan. But the timing and findings of the report give added weight to a petition by the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts to impose a blanket remedy instead of the current costly, painstaking efforts that require defense attorneys to identify individual clients with questionable convictions.
Specifically, the ACLU is petitioning the state’s highest court to provide prosecutors with just a 90-day window to decide which drug cases they want to re-litigate from among the 40,000 that may have been corrupted by Dookhan. Failing to meet that bar, the convictions would be overturned automatically.
The time frame may be too tight. But the basic approach is sound. The court and inspector general made clear that the disgraceful actions of Dookhan and the incompetent management practices at the state lab were responsible for this massive breakdown in the criminal justice system. The burden should rest on the government, not the defendants, to make it right.