Editor's Note: A total of 21,587 drug cases have now been highlighted for dismissal by Massachusetts’ district attorneys, according to the state’s chapter of the ACLU.
Today, the 11 district attorneys in Massachusetts face a daunting deadline: they are to weigh in on thousands of drug convictions that were tainted by a “laboratory scandal of unprecedented magnitude.”
The state’s Supreme Court ruled in January that all cases on which disgraced forensic scientist Annie Dookhan worked had to be reconsidered by April 18, 2017.
The staggering load is 21,587 drug cases which are now poised for dismissal, according to the state's chapters of the American Civil Liberties Union, which spearheaded the challenge of the Dookhan cases.
The three-part review process will mean vacating and dismissing all cases which they could not reprosecute, provide notice to all defendants in Dookhan cases and assign a public defender to those who ask for one.
The 11 DAs are expected to submit lists by today of convictions they will dismiss as a result of Dookhan’s actions.
Dookhan was first discovered falsifying results in 2011. She pleaded guilty to falsifying and “drylabbing” forensic results in 2013. She handled one in six drug cases in Massachusetts over the course of a decade. She was released in March 2016 after serving her own time in prison.
In their January decision, the Supreme Court rejected arguments by the Massachusetts District Attorneys Association which sought to slow the review of the thousands of cases. But the judges also rejected a petition by defense attorneys that every case in which she took part be completely dismissed by default—which would have set thousands of prisoners free.
“We recognize the implementation of this protocol will substantially burden the district attorneys, CPCS and the courts,” the judges ruled. “But we also recognize that Dookhan’s misconduct at the Hinton lab has substantially burdened the due process rights of many thousands of defendants whose convictions rested on her tainted drug analysis and who, even if they have served their sentences, continue to suffer the collateral consequences arising from those convictions.”
Today’s deadline is a “day of reckoning,” writes Kade Crockford, the director of technology for the Liberty Program at the ACLU of Massachusetts, in a piece calling the entire criminal justice system in the commonwealth “tainted.”
“The crisis is not the result of one bad actor,” Crockford states. “Annie Dookhan, the ‘rogue’ chemist at the center of this debacle, was free to falsify drug lab results for eight full years because the system is designed to facilitate convictions, while simultaneously being utterly ill-equipped to either provide equal justice to defendants or restore justice to the wrongfully convicted.”
Exactly how many cases will be tossed is still being determined.
Suffolk County, which is the county that contains Boston and three other surrounding cities on the eastern coast of the Bay State, is focusing on reprosecuting just 1.5 percent of the cases. Those 117 defendants have been convicted of more than 2,800 charges, including violent crimes and weapons violations, said Daniel F. Conley, the Suffolk DA, in an announcement this afternoon.
The Suffolk County authorities sent a list of more than 15,000 drug convictions (amid 7,500 Suffolk County dockets) to be dismissed by the trial court. But Conley said it wasn't because the people were innocent - instead, they were focusing on the graver crimes among the Dookhan list.
A handful of other district attorneys’ offices told Forensic Magazine this morning that they would have updates on their response to the deadline by the end of the day. The state attorney general’s office may also have comment in the coming hours, according to a spokeswoman.