Dismissal sought for 11K cases tied to Amherst drug lab scandal

  • Sonja Farak, 35, of Northampton, a former chemist at the state crime lab in Amherst, appears before Hampshire Superior Court Judge C. Jeffrey Kinder in Northampton on Monday, April 24, 2013, for her arraignment on multiple counts of evidence tampering, drug theft and drug possession. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Published: 3/20/2018 10:23:11 AM

BOSTON — Defense attorneys and civil libertarians have asked the highest court in Massachusetts to throw out another 11,000 drug cases potentially tainted by a rogue chemist at a state drug lab.

The motion filed last week by the Committee for Public Counsel Services and the American Civil Liberties Union argues the Supreme Judicial Court should vacate all cases involving drug samples tested at the Amherst lab during Sonja Farak’s eight-year tenure.

Authorities say Farak was high almost every day she worked at the Department of Public Health laboratory. She pleaded guilty in 2014 to stealing drugs from the lab for personal use and tampering with evidence.

The motion says there is a “cloud” not only over the cases Farak was involved in, but “over the integrity of all testing” at the lab, according to the Boston Globe.

Prosecutors already have agreed to dismiss about 8,000 convictions tainted by Farak. Of those cases, 1,497 convictions were dismissed in November by the Northwestern district attorney’s office.

The cases represent drug convictions between 2004 and 2012 that were based on certificates of analysis signed by Farak. Around the same time, the Hampden district attorney’s office also said it would dismiss about 3,940 district and juvenile convictions involving drug samples tied to Farak.

The Supreme Judicial Court will now consider whether all cases that passed through the drug lab during Farak’s employment should be re-examined, even if she didn’t work on them.

The court is scheduled to hear the motion in May.

The drug lab in Amherst handled samples primarily from western Massachusetts police departments but also tested samples that had been diverted from the Hinton/Jamaica Plain lab in an effort to decrease a backlog. The Amherst lab was shuttered in 2013 after news broke of Farak’s drug thefts.

Farak’s case is separate from another Massachusetts drug lab scandal that resulted in an unprecedented dismissal of roughly 21,000 convictions last year. Those cases were tainted by Annie Dookhan, a drug chemist for the state lab in Jamaica Plain who was arrested in 2012 and convicted of tampering with evidence. Dookhan had been found to be “dry-labbing,” or identifying samples by sight without actually testing them to boost her work production and impress her superiors.

The handling of the Farak investigation drew ire from at least one superior court judge who blasted not only Farak but also the Massachusetts attorney general’s office. In a 127-page ruling issued last summer, Judge Richard Carey said one former assistant attorney general intentionally misrepresented facts and deliberately misled defense lawyers, prosecutors and the court. Another assistant attorney general, the judge said, “lacked a moral compass.” He wrote that the two prosecutors committed a “fraud upon the court.”

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