State ACLU urges Mass. high court to dismiss all Annie Dookhan cases

Former state chemist Annie Dookhan sits Friday, Nov. 22, 2013, in Suffolk Superior Court in Boston, before a hearing where she entered a guilty plea on charges of obstruction of justice, perjury and tampering with evidence. Dookhan, who admitted faking test results in criminal cases, was sentenced to three to five years in prison, followed by two years' probation. (AP Photo/The Boston Globe, David L Ryan, Pool)
Annie Dookhan’s mishandling of drug evidence threw the state’s criminal justice system into turmoil.
David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts urged the state’s highest court today to dismiss all of the 40,000-plus criminal cases tied to Annie Dookhan, the state chemist whose falsification of test results in drug cases led to the worst scandal to hit the criminal justice system in years.

Saying that the state had failed over the past two years to coordinate a proper response to the scandal, the civil liberties group asked a Supreme Judicial Court judge to order prosecutors to determine within 90 days whether they want to pursue individual cases. If so, the prosecutors would have six months to resolve the cases with a trial or a guilty plea.

The group also asked the judge to prohibit prosecutors from seeking tougher penalties against people who have already been convicted and sentenced but want their cases reviewed. The group said the risk of tougher punishment has intimidated defendants from filing legitimate challenges to their convictions, interfering with their constitutional right to a fair trial.

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“The alternative to this approach has been tried, and it has failed,” said Matthew R. Segal, legal director for the group. He said his group’s proposal would “deliver a fair, efficient, and comprehensive approach to the tainted convictions” stemming from the lab scandal.

The petition filed by the group, which the justice could review alone or ask the full court to decide, asks the court to order the reforms under its authority to administer the court system and resolve criminal justice issues.

In the filing, the ACLU argued that defendants with cases tied to Dookhan should not have to decide whether to challenge their charges or convictions — and that the court should instead dismiss them all and put the burden on prosecutors of deciding which cases still have merit.

Segal said the conditions at the William A. Hinton State Laboratory Institute in Jamaica Plain where Dookhan worked were so poor that the state has not even been able to identify the court docket numbers for the cases that Dookhan was involved in, never mind identify the defendants’ lawyers or set new court hearings.

“The attorney general has said that the response to the Hinton lab scandal has already cost hundreds of millions of dollars, yet all that money has not even brought a list of docket numbers, let alone justice,” Segal said. “It’s time for a smarter approach.”

By all accounts, the drug lab scandal has been the worst to hit the criminal justice system in recent years, and it continues to play out in courts across the state.

Authorities determined that Dookhan, 36, who worked at the lab for more than a decade, for years tampered with drug evidence by mixing substances or falsely reporting test results. She told investigators she was rushing her work so that she could boost her job performance. She pleaded guilty in November and was sentenced to three to five years in prison.

The state Office of Inspector General is reviewing the overall conditions at the lab, which was closed when the scandal broke. A report is expected by the end of the month.

Defense lawyers have argued that poor standards at the lab exacerbated Dookhan’s failures, and that all of the cases that are tied to her are tainted.

A state chemist’s certification that a suspicious substance seized from a drug defendant has been scientifically proven to be an illegal drug — rather than, say, talcum powder — is a crucial component of a drug prosecution.

Since the scandal broke in 2011, defense lawyers have prioritized challenging cases for defendants who were in prison based on evidence tested by Dookhan, and they have had mixed results. The Supreme Judicial Court is considering several cases from Suffolk County that will ultimately determine what standards prosecutors and the courts should follow in determining whether a defendant is entitled to a new trial.

Prosecutors have opposed a blanket dismissal of cases, pointing out that defendants could also have been implicated in other crimes. Last month, for instance, a Roslindale man was sentenced in Norfolk Superior Court to two-and-a-half years in prison for charges, including assault and battery with a dangerous weapon, stemming from a dangerous police chase. The sentence was handed out even after prosecutors agreed to drop drug charges against him.