When individuals are arrested for drug crimes, the suspected drugs are confiscated by police as evidence. Samples of the substances are sent to labs for testing, to confirm that they are actually illicit drugs. Evidence from the lab tests are then used as evidence by prosecutors to charge the individual with a crime, or when offering a plea deal. At least that is how the system is supposed to operate.
Former chemist Annie Dookhan is serving a sentence in a Massachusetts prison for falsifying drug evidence tests, which has affected more than 40,000 criminal cases. The story came to light a few years ago, but the decision as to how to treat the cases remains unanswered. Now the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court is taking up the issue.
Dookhan has admitted that she did not do all the drug tests she claimed she did. She also admitted forging her co-workers signatures. All this took place at the now-shuttered Hinton State Laboratory Institute in Boston, where Dookhan worked as a chemist from 2002 to 2011. Spokesperson for the public defender agency, Anne Goldbach, suspected the fraudulent drug testing could number even higher than the initial 40,000 case number, with a potential to affect thousands more criminal cases.
The court will now hear arguments to decide what to do with the thousands of drug convictions based on the tainted evidence. More than 300 people convicted for drug crimes have already been released from prison, with other facing retrial. Yet many of those affected may be unaware that their case was one related to the drug lab. Matthew Segal, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, said that many defendants have not be notified that they have the opportunity to change their conviction, and that others have been frightened away from doing so.
Attorneys representing defendants convicted of drug violations, or who accepted plea deals, have argued that the court should order prosecutors to be more effective in notifying those who may have an option to change their conviction, and to prevent them from seeking stiffer penalties for those who chose a retrial. However, prosecutors argued that the defendants should have all the charges revisited if the individuals seek to overturn their convictions.
The state discovered Dookhan's fraud in 2012 when control of the lab was being transferred to the state police. Part of the problem was the labs lack of oversight. As a result, the lab's "rogue chemist", who desired to be the most productive worker, has placed suspicion on all results from the labs drug tests. The fallout has created one of the country's biggest drug lab scandals, but is not the only state to encounter such problems. New York, Delaware, and Colorado have also faced criticism over drug lab oversight in recent years.
The Massachusetts decision may have broader consequences for how states handle convictions tainted by drug lab lapses. According to Brandon Garrett, a professor at the University of Virginia School of Law, "these crime lab scandals are not going away. There need to be ground rules to grant relief for all these people whose cases are affected.