Editorial: State should do the right thing with tainted drug convictions

Last modified: Tuesday, July 21, 2015

On Oct. 30, 2014, Northampton defense attorney Luke Ryan drove to Boston to have a court-ordered look at a box of papers state investigators recovered from the car of former drug lab chemist Sonja J. Farak after her arrest on evidence tampering and drug charges.

He had been told by state authorities there was nothing in the box that would be of use in his effort to clear his clients of criminal charges.

They couldn’t have been more wrong.

Ryan was pursuing justice for several clients convicted of drug charges based on evidence that included Farak’s so-called drug test certifications. With a state police officer looking on, in about 90 minutes Ryan found among the roughly 280 pieces of paper in that box the proverbial smoking gun.

Farak, who tested evidence for criminal trials in a state drug lab on the University of Massachusetts Amherst campus, was arrested in January of 2013, and shortly after that state authorities claimed her malfeasance took place over a short span of time — about six months — which would mean the number of cases that may have been tainted were somewhat contained.

What Ryan discovered in a bankers box smashed that theory to smithereens. He found treatment and therapy notes indicating that Farak had been stealing drugs from the lab and tampering with evidence from 2004 right up until her arrest in 2013. Ironically, he found a treatment-related diary card on which Farak admitted that on Dec. 22, 2011, she had tried to resist using drugs at work, but was unable to. He knew from earlier trial evidence that led to the drug conviction in 2013 of one of his clients that she had tested the evidence in his client’s case on Dec. 22, 2011. That client is still jailed, hoping for a new trial.

The information Ryan uncovered suggests that Farak was a daily drug user who once worried that she was psychotic and was concerned that co-workers might have known she was using. She stole drugs from the samples that came into her office for testing.

Farak was convicted and received an 18-month sentence.

Ryan and other defense lawyers believe this is all the proof needed that any testing she did on criminal evidence is worthless. And Ryan rightly notes that if she was both stealing drugs and using drugs multiple times in a work day, there is a high likelihood that she was also faking results, something known as dry-labbing.

Ryan and other defense attorneys claim that a conservative estimate is that Farak’s misdeeds tainted in the neighborhood of 10,000 prosecutions.

According to Northwestern District Attorney David Sullivan, who used the word debacle to describe the Farak situation, about 2,000 cases in his office may have relied on Farak’s work. He also corroborated Ryan’s estimate that 10,000 cases statewide may have been tainted by Farak.

Sullivan has said Farak’s action “seriously undercut the integrity of the drug lab.” After Farak’s arrest, Sullivan provided the state attorney general with a list of drug cases his office prosecuted using analysis by Farak — based on that information, the office is now conducting its own investigation, which Sullivan said should be “independent, comprehensive and transparent.”

But consider for a moment what might have happened at all those trials — or plea negotiations — if defense attorneys had known the evidence against their clients had been tested by a chemist whose reasoning was impaired and her judgment clouded by her use of cocaine, methamphetamines, crack cocaine, ecstasy and MDMA.

Guilty pleas and convictions? Hardly.

It’s important to note that some defendants have already served sentences and been released from jail — but their convictions haunt them in punitive ways: inability to get a driver’s license, making it harder to get jobs, and putting student loans out of reach.

Sullivan should immediately take steps to vacate all convictions for defendants who have already served their sentences. That’s the least the state should do given this “debacle,” in an effort to help them become the productive, functioning members of society we all want them to be.

By all means, the attorney general’s office should vigorously investigate to see what lessons can be learned from this sorry mess and what systemic changes should be made to make sure it never happens again.

As for the rest of the Northwestern district’s 2,000 cases that relied on Farak’s work? Sullivan should throw every one of them out as soon as possible.

All are hopelessly corrupted beyond redemption. Sullivan’s office should cut them loose once and for all. That is in the best interests of justice.


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