Massachusetts may soon hold the record for the most massive single dismissal of wrongful convictions in United States history, as state prosecutors announced a breathtaking 21,587 criminal drug convictions will be thrown out.
Tens of thousands had been arrested based on testimony and evidence provided by Annie Dookhan — a former state chemist arrested in 2013 for obstruction of justice, evidence tampering, and perjury, pertaining to misconduct over the course of her nine-year tenure at a state crime lab in Boston.
Investigators remain uncertain as to Dookhan’s motivation, though colleagues believed her apparent obsession with overachieving may have meant cutting corners or even faking results. As the state’s most prolific analyst, the chemist — who pled guilty in a plea deal and served three years in prison — garnered praise from supervisors, but doubts from coworkers.
“Today is a major victory for justice and fairness, and for thousands of people in the Commonwealth who were unfairly convicted of drug offenses,” declared Matthew Segal, who assisted litigating for the Massachusetts ACLU. “Unfortunately, the victims of this crisis waited far too long for justice. It shouldn’t have taken years of litigation by the ACLU, public defenders, and pro bono lawyers to address this stain on the Commonwealth’s justice system.”
UPI reports, “The seven district attorney offices with cases affected by Dookhan’s crimes brought their lists to the state Supreme Judicial Court clerk’s office in Boston on Tuesday. The court is expected to issue an order of dismissal this week.”
Both the Massachusetts state public defender and American Civil Liberties Union explained re-trying some 24,000 individual cases pertaining to 20,000 individuals would paralyze the state’s defense bar — and, more to the point, would be inconsequential in light of the ineffectual War on Drugs.
Rather than cope with such a superfluous backlog, the Supreme Judicial Court, highest in the state, ruled Dookhan’s callous ineptitude, “government misconduct that has cast a shadow over the entire criminal justice system,” according to the Washington Post.
In the court’s opinion, Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants noted the ‘ongoing impact’ of the false convictions on the individuals’ lives — including added burdens in seeking jobs, housing, or financial aid.
District attorneys in the eight counties affected by Dookhan’s egregious mishandling received orders from the highest court in January to review pertinent reports within 90 days, in order to determine which could be feasibly retried and those which should be dropped.
Prosecutors delivered those lists to the court Tuesday.
According to UPI, the “counties involved are Bristol, Essex, Cape and Islands, Middlesex, Norfolk, Plymouth, and Suffolk. Suffolk County District Attorney Daniel Conley said in a statement that 117 of 15,570 cases will be pursued and the rest dropped; Bristol Count District Attorney Thomas Quinn III said that 112 of more than 1,500 cases involving Dookhan’s analysis would go forward; Cape and Islands District Attorney Michael O’Keefe said his office would prosecute one case and drop 1,067.”
In a statement, O’Keefe explained, “We are dealing with drug defendants, the overwhelming majority of whom pleaded guilty, went through an exhaustive plea colloquy with a judge and testified under oath that they were ‘pleading guilty because they were guilty and for no other reason.”
Convictions must be tossed, he added, “because we believe that the integrity of our system of justice is more important than their convictions.”
Astonishingly, Dookhan lied about her chemistry degree, forged supervisors’ initials, and admitted to performing the most perfunctory of visual tests. Investigators noted her colleagues expressed doubts about the workaholic’s performance — but those concerns were never addressed by supervisors.
“The dismissal of thousands of tainted drug lab cases rightly puts justice over results,” asserted Massachusetts Bar Association Chief Legal Counsel Martin Healey. “It is a necessary and long-overdue outcome, given our criminal justice system’s responsibility to ensure a level playing field for all, regardless of the offense.”
Attorney Daniel Marx, who represented some of those wrongfully convicted, explained a number of the ‘Dookhan defendants’ had served time in prison and experienced unnecessarily harsh repercussions in daily living thanks to the chemist’s quest to achieve.
“Now,” Marx said, “a majority of these wrongfully convicted individuals will have the opportunity to clear their records and move on with their lives.”