Annie Dookhan, the disgraced state chemist who tainted evidence in thousands upon thousands of drug cases, is out of prison now. Deemed a low-risk, nonviolent offender, she was paroled earlier this year. So is Sonja Farak, another state chemist who regularly got high on the job by sampling the drugs stored for evidence. But their destructive legacy is apt to endure for years to come: Dookhan’s work affected more than 24,000 cases, and Farak snorted or swallowed evidence in 18,000 more.
And that’s exactly why next month’s Supreme Judicial Court hearing on a lawsuit known as Bridgeman v. District Attorney for Suffolk County is so critical. Only some Dookhan defendants have had their cases addressed. Earlier this month, the ACLU of Massachusetts, the Committee for Public Counsel Services, and a Boston law firm urged the state’s highest court to vacate all 24,000 unresolved Dookhan cases. In colorful language, the public defender agency argues that it simply isn’t feasible to re-litigate the 24,000 remaining cases: “The Commonwealth’s indigent defense system has no more capacity to litigate all these cases than it does to build a rocket ship and fly it to Jupiter.”
But Jake Wark, spokesman for the Suffolk County district attorney’s office, notes that there is still other untainted evidence to build cases around, including witness testimony, drug paraphernalia, phone records, and surveillance. And not all Dookhan defendants were first-time, nonviolent offenders. Some cases involve possession with intent to distribute, and others involve weapons or violence.
There is a strong public interest here that could guide the court, and all parties before it, in coming to a solution. The SJC could begin to repair the damage by directing prosecutors to separate out the most serious offenders for retrial. The records of low-level Dookhan offenders — most of whom have already been released anyway — could be wiped clean. It’s only fitting; the state’s response to this debacle has been delayed long enough.