DA moves to dismiss 1,497 drug cases

  • 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, April 24, 2013, for her arraignment on multiple counts of evidence tampering, drug theft and drug possession. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

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    In this file photo, Northwestern District Attorney David Sullivan speaks during "Hope, Remembrance and Recovery: Healing from the Opioid Crisis,” at Union Station. Thursday, Nov. 30, 2017, Sullivan’s office announced that it intends to dismiss 1,497 drug convictions.  Gazette File Photo

Published: 11/30/2017 11:23:06 AM

NORTHAMPTON — The Northwestern district attorney’s office will throw out almost 1,500 drug cases tied to a former chemist at an Amherst laboratory who authorities say was high almost every day of the eight years she worked there.

All of the 1,497 convictions are considered tainted by former chemist Sonja Farak, of Northampton, office spokeswoman Mary Carey said in a statement Thursday. Approximately 6,000 cases statewide were dismissed Thursday. Farak pleaded guilty in 2014 to stealing drugs and tampering with evidence during her time at the Department of Public Health laboratory.

The cases represent drug convictions between 2004 and 2012 that were based on certificates of analysis signed by Farak.

“Although we have no reason to believe that anyone was wrongfully convicted in the cases being dismissed, it would not be in the best interests of justice to attempt to reprosecute them,” Northwestern District Attorney David Sullivan said in a statement.

First Assistant Northwestern District Attorney Steven Gagne filed the request with the Supreme Judicial Court Wednesday.

“I don’t think anybody has been a stronger advocate for rectifying this situation than District Attorney Sullivan,” Gagne said Thursday. “It’s unfortunate that it took as long as it did to come up with 1,497 cases. We are glad we were able to finally get to this point and belatedly do what we think is just.”

The decision came in response to a petition filed by the Committee for Public Counsel Services and the American Civil Liberties Union.

The Hampden District Attorney’s office also said it would dismiss about 3,940 district and juvenile convictions involving drug samples tied to Farak.

Farak was arrested in January 2013 and charged with stealing drugs to feed her own addiction. Farak pleaded guilty a year later to charges of drug theft and evidence tampering and, in the scandal that ensued, flaws in state procedures emerged and defense attorneys asked judges to re-examine cases of clients tried on drug lab evidence.

The Amherst Drug Lab handled samples from primarily western Massachusetts police departments but also tested samples which 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.

This August, Judge Richard Carey issued a 127-page ruling that lambasted law enforcement officials for their handling of the case.

According to the judge, the facts that emerged revealed not only the lab’s lax security measures but also evidence that the attorney general’s office intentionally withheld evidence that would have established the full breadth of Farak’s misconduct. In light of the revelations, Carey dismissed convictions for seven Pioneer Valley defendants, and allowed another to withdraw a guilty plea.

Farak’s misconduct was initially believed to have begun in July 2012, although it would later be determined, through the efforts of defense attorney Luke Ryan and the discovery of mental health worksheets that had been seized as evidence at the time of Farak’s arrest, that her use of lab drugs began much earlier.

Reached Thursday evening, Ryan couldn’t say justice had been served because of the time it took to vacate the convictions, but he said an injustice had been removed. The collateral consequences, such a denial of employment, subsidized housing and student loan opportunities, are significant, Ryan said.

“This is really a chance for people who are largely rehabilitated to find a better place within the fabric of society,” Ryan said.

While the district attorney’s actions provide closure for some, Ryan said they also open many questions for cases in other parts of the state as well as cases from the 13 months Farak spent at the state’s drug lab in Hinton.

Going back

In his filing, Gagne wrote that information about the scale and scope of Farak’s actions was slow to emerge.

“As of spring 2015, there was no definitive answer as to how far back Farak’s misconduct at the Amherst Lab may have extended,” he wrote. He also wrote that the district attortney’s office was unable to identify which cases Farak may have analyzed during her tenure at the lab.

In May 2015, the office received information from the state attorney general’s office with data showing all the drug samples Farak analyzed between June 2008 and December 2012. At that time, only one person was still incarcerated and that individual’s sentence was reduced to time served and released in September 2016. A later batch of data showed the cases she had worked on between 2004 and 2008. After receiving the second batch, the office decided a “‘global remedy” was justified in light of the time and resources needed to reprosecute a handful of drug cases, Gagne wrote.

Gagne said the office ran records of every one of the Farak defendants to see if there were subsequent cases that had been enhanced because of the previous conviction.

“There were some, although there were no cases where people were serving sentences,” Gagne said.

Gagne stressed that there was a distinction between cases tainted by Farak and individuals wrongfully convicted.

In the majority of cases, Gagne said there were field tests that confirmed the substances were drugs and that there may have been other evidence circumstantially that indicated they were drugs.

“In 95 percent of the cases where defendants plead guilty, they admitted in court under oath that the substances were in fact drugs,” Gagne said. “This is not to say that these people should never have been convicted.”

Put simply, Northampton defense attorney Marissa Elkins said, it was the right thing to do.

“It is already a tremendous loss in the lives of people who are convicted on the basis of these drug certificates which were faulty and the misconduct that was involved there,” she said.

“It is good that the district attorney’s office is making the call to not further litigate these or try to do some piece-meal review of these cases and just let them go.”

Northampton defense attorney Alan Rubin of the Committee for Public Counsel Services called the action “a great step.”

“It’s done. I would have wanted it done much sooner, absolutely,” Rubin said. “I’m not going to use it as a complaint to go backwards. We’ve got to move forward.”

It is the second time in less than a year that the state’s prosecutors have been forced to throw out thousands of cases due to misconduct by drug lab chemists. More than 20,000 convictions were tossed in April after another chemist, Annie Dookhan, was caught tampering with evidence and falsifying tests.

This report contains information from the Associated Press.

Emily Cutts can be reached at ecutts@gazettenet.com.

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