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SJC dismisses thousands of drug cases after Amherst lab scandal

  • Sonja Farak, of Northampton, a former chemist at the state crime lab in Amherst, appears in Hampshire Superior Court on April 24, 2013, for her arraignment on multiple counts of evidence tampering, drug theft and drug possession. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING



Staff Writer
Thursday, October 11, 2018

AMHERST — The state’s highest court has ordered thousands more drug convictions dismissed based on a chemist’s misconduct in a state lab in Amherst and state prosecutors’ withholding of evidence about that wrongdoing.

In a sweeping decision issued on Thursday, the Supreme Judicial Court dismissed with prejudice every methamphetamine-related conviction from the nine years that former chemist Sonja Farak worked at the Amherst lab, as well as all cases involving drug tests from that lab from Jan. 1, 2009 through Jan. 18, 2013. The state attorney general's office will be responsible for the costs of identifying and notifying those whose cases would be overturned.

“For years, civil rights lawyers and our clients have been saying that there was substantial wrongdoing in the Amherst lab sandal, not just by Sonja Farak, but by prosecutors,” Matt Segal, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, said in a call with reporters Thursday afternoon.

Farak, of Northampton, pleaded guilty to stealing drug evidence from the lab for her own personal use. A state investigation found that she was high on methamphetamines and other drugs for most of her tenure at the lab, including when she testified in court on drug charges. In addition, the SJC previously concluded that two assistant attorneys general had committed a "fraud upon the court" by intentionally withholding evidence from defendants in drug cases that would have revealed the breadth of Farak's misconduct.

Writing for the court in a unanimous opinion, Justice Frank Gaziano wrote that Farak's "widespread evidence tampering" and the prosecutors’ withholding of evidence had compromised the integrity of thousands of drug convictions, requiring the court to vacate them.

“Her misconduct, compounded by prosecutorial misconduct, requires that this court exercise its superintendence authority and vacate and dismiss all criminal convictions tainted by governmental wrongdoing,” Gaziano wrote. “While dismissal with prejudice ‘is a remedy of last resort,’ it is necessary in these circumstances.”

The court has also said that it will reexamine the state's rules of criminal procedure in order to ensure that prosecutors provide defendants with a timely disclosure of exculpatory evidence, which is evidence tending to prove that a defendant is not guilty or not liable as charged. 

The SJC has referred that work to its standing advisory committee on rules of criminal procedure, which will draft a proposed checklist to clarify the definition of exculpatory evidence. The checklist would also stress that if a prosecutor is not sure if something counts as exculpatory evidence, that person will have to present it to a judge for review.

The petitioners in the case before the SJC were the Committee for Public Counsel Services, Hampden County Lawyers for Justice and two named defendants, Herschelle Reaves and Nicole Westcott.

Rebecca Jacobstein, a staff attorney at CPCS, said her group's best estimate was that this latest ruling would affect thousands of people, though she did not have an exact number. Those people may still be incarcerated, including on federal charges that might have been lengthened because of prior drug convictions that might now be dismissed. Some others may have been affected in different ways, like being barred from having a driver's license.

“We need to identify them in the first instance,” Jacobstein said in the phone call with reporters. “There is a lot of work to be done.”

Northwestern District Attorney David Sullivan was unavailable for an interview Thursday afternoon, but wrote in a statement to the Gazette that the affected drug cases in the district would be in the thousands, and that identifying them may take three to six months. Sullivan said his office will continue to work on identifying those cases in the interest of justice.

“Today’s Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court opinion hopefully represents the final chapter in a sad tale of a rogue chemist, a substandard Department of Public Health drug lab, and prosecutorial misconduct by two former Assistant Attorneys General,” Sullivan stated Thursday. “It reflects a decades-long attitude that drug testing for criminal cases could be done on the cheap.”

That sentiment was taken further by Segal of the ACLU, who said the scandal is a sign of how “rotten to the core the war on drugs has been in Massachusetts.”

In his statement, Sullivan also pointed out that the SJC found no fault in the actions of state district attorneys and their offices in turning over evidence to defendants, or identifying and notifying those affected by Farak’s misconduct. 

Third ruling

Thursday’s decision is the third that the SJC has made in the case of the Amherst lab, which was located on the University of Massachusetts Amherst campus. Some 8,000 convictions have already been vacated in cases where Farak had signed drug certificates. 

In its latest ruling, the SJC expanded its definition of those affected by Farak's tampering. Gaziano wrote that Farak's misconduct from when she started working at the lab in 2004 until the end of 2008 was limited to stealing lab standards of methamphetamine. In 2009, Farak started stealing police-submitted samples and engaging in more widespread tampering, the ruling reads.

For that reason, the dismissed convictions include all methamphetamine-related charges from Farak’s tenure and all cases involving drug tests from the Amherst lab from 2009 until Farak was caught in 2013.

Previous court rulings had found that two assistant attorneys general, working under former attorney general Martha Coakley, did not disclose to defense attorneys knowledge they had about Farak telling her therapist about her misconduct as early as 2009. The SJC has previously slammed the state's "cursory at best" investigation into Farak's misconduct.

“Because the office of the Attorney General is responsible for the prosecutorial misconduct, it shall bear the entire financial burden associated with notifying those affected defendants that their cases have been dismissed,” Thursday’s ruling reads.

The work of identifying affected defendants is generally the longest step in the process, Jacobstein said. At this point, lawyers only have a list of names of people whose samples were sent to the Amherst lab. They must now go case by case to see which samples resulted in a conviction. Jacobstein said that some courts still haven't finished the work of updating cases that the SJC's previous rulings have affected. 

“I am getting word from other attorneys that some of the courts aren’t quite finished updating their dockets,” Jacobstein said. “They are working on that and that should be done soon.”

The dismissals in the Farak case are far from the only that the state has had to throw out. Another state chemist, Annie Dookhan, was also found to have tampered with drug samples at a lab in Jamaica Plain, resulting in more than 30,000 convictions being overturned.

Farak pleaded guilty in 2014 to evidence tampering, theft of a controlled substance from an authorized dispensary and possession of a class B drug, and subsequently completed an 18-month prison sentence.

As for the two former assistant attorneys general, the remain the subjects of an ongoing investigation by the Board of Bar Oversees.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.