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Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Rules on “Dookhan Defendants”

Massachusetts Court Again Addresses Dookhan Defendants’ Plight

“We once again confront the tragic legacy of the misconduct of Annie Dookhan when she was employed as a chemist at the William A. Hinton State Laboratory Institute.”  So begins a recent opinion, referred to as “Bridgman II” issued by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.  The court is wading through the mess of 24,000 criminal convictions based on the test results produced by Annie Dookhan.

Ms. Dookhan intentionally and deliberately tampered with evidence, adding known

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credit, By Jeff Dahl – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

controlled substances to samples which were otherwise not illegal.  Ms. Dookhan also created reports indicating the presence of a controlled substance without actually performing the test (a process known as “dry labbing”).  In 2013, Ms. Dookhan pled guilty to 27 counts, including tampering with evidence, filing false reports, and misleading investigators, while a drug analyst at the Hinton, Massachusetts Lab.  She has served 3 years in prison for her misconduct.

 

Prosecutors Resist Addressing the Problem

The state of Massachusetts continues to grapple with what to do with those convicted based on Ms. Dookhan’s lab reports.  Inexplicably, despite general consensus that Ms. Dookhan did indeed tamper with evidence in a number of ways, prosecutors resist requests to dismiss all cases worked on by Ms. Dookhan.  Over the years, prosecutors offered a variety of excuses for their failure to actively seek justice, including:

  • Prosecutors have no obligation to notify convicted defendants of their possible innocence;
  • Convicted defendants “might be too poor or busy dealing with more pressing issues”; and
  • Defendants lack interest in “reopening a closed chapter in their lives.”

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court acknowledged, given the extent of the misconduct, “only poor alternatives” exist to remedy the situation.  The Court further expressed frustration with “the unacceptably glacial systemic response to date.” Additionally, the Court expressed dismay prosecutors failed to notify defendants many of them are entitled to a favorable legal presumption.  A previous court ruling entitles certain defendants to a presumption the analysis performed was “tainted by egregious government misconduct.”  The Court called upon prosecutors to dismiss with prejudice “a truly significant number” of the Dookhan cases.

A Method for Dealing with the Problem

The Court ordered District Attorneys to review all Dookhan cases individually.  Prosecutors must determine whether enough evidence exists to secure a conviction, in light of the Dookhan misconduct.  The Court declared mid-April the deadline for the review.  Of those cases wherein the prosecution maintains the belief a conviction is obtainable, they have 30 days to notify the defendant of certain rights.  These include:

  • The right to a new trial on the charge;
  • A promise not to recharge counts previously dismissed; and
  • The assurance of a sentence no longer or more severe than the original sentence, should the government prevail at trial.

 

A Caution

In a concurring opinion, Justice Lenk expresses frustration regarding the fewer than 2,000 cases addressed in the past 5 years.  “We cannot go on this way.”  People with drug convictions find themselves struggling to obtain jobs, housing, professional licenses, obtain student loans, attend college, receive government benefits they would otherwise be entitled to, and even face deportation.  Justice Lenk notes the measures announced by the majority appear “promising” but only if implemented in observance of the timelines put forth.   Further, Lenk called upon prosecutors to aggressively dismiss cases.  “At a minimum,” the concurrence called for dismissal of cases involving “simple possession” where defendants already completed their sentence.  “Only this will forestall the need for a ‘Bridgeman III’ and different measures.”

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