Tens of thousands of Massachusetts inmates may have the chance to get their drug convictions overturned, thanks to a Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruling, earlier this month. The cases all involved defendants who plead guilty on the advise of council, after state crime lab tests reportedly showed the presence of drugs.
In 2013, former Massachusetts crime chemist Annie Dookhan plead guilty to 27 criminal counts, including tampering with evidence, violating the state witness intimidation statute, multiple counts of lying to a grand jury, falsely claiming to carrying a degree and others. Dookhan admitted to falsifying lab results in tens of thousands of drug related criminal cases. For her crimes, she received a three to five-year prison sentence, and an additional two years probation.
According to WCVB in Boston, Dookhan tampered with test results, forged documents and testified falsely in criminal cases over a 14 year period, while she was employed with the state crime lab.
Here’s video from WCVB.
While hundreds of convictions have already been overturned because of the tainted evidence, thousands of additional cases have yet to be brought forward. Many of those cases involved defendants who entered into a plea agreement with prosecutors, on advice of legal counsel.
According to Matthew Segal, Legal Director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, while anywhere from 40,000 to 60,000 cases were impacted by the evidence tampering, only about 1,200 defendants actually challenged their sentences in court. Segal told The New York Times that people were afraid that if they brought a legal challenge, the result could be an even harsher sentence than what was originally imposed.
On May 18, the Supreme Judicial Court paved the way for those cases to be brought forward, without the fear of additional punishment. The justices wrote:
“we now conclude that (1) a defendant who has been granted a new trial based on Dookhan’s misconduct at the Hinton drug lab cannot be charged with a more serious offense than that of which he or she initially was convicted under the terms of a plea agreement and, if convicted again, cannot be given a more severe sentence than that which originally was imposed.”
According to Segal, the justices decision will have a pronounced impact on individuals who have thus far been afraid to challenge their sentences.
“It clears a path for people to challenge — when I say people, I say thousands, maybe tens of thousands of people — to challenge their convictions without fear that prosecutors will respond by seeking to revive harsher charges or harsher sentences that were relinquished in a plea bargain.”
Following a 15-month-long investigation into Massachusetts’ Hinton Drug Lab, state inspectors found ‘a pattern of neglect, mismanagement, and poor standards.’ While claiming that Dookhan was the only ‘bad actor’ at the lab, the Inspector General told the Boston Globe that “a lack of uniform protocols and procedures at the lab led to deficient practices.” He went on to say that training for chemists was ‘wholly inadequate.’
Inspectors found improper weighing of drug evidence (in order to trump up charges), cases with no chain of command, and cases in which the test results were inconsistent, but prosecutors and defense attorneys were never informed of the discrepancies.
One of the most surprising revelations about the Hinton Drug Lab is that it was never accredited. Yet the lab was charged with testing evidence, providing documentation and even sending ‘expert witnesses’ to testify in court.
Following the state’s investigation, the Hinton Drug Lab was closed down. Besides Dookhan, no-one who worked at the lab was charged with a crime. Three years after the investigation first began, tens of thousands of citizens may still be in prison because of the conduct of Hinton Lab employees.
While the court’s recent decision will minimize some of the chilling effect of the Hinton Lab scandal, until there is real public oversight over every aspect of the criminal justice system, public confidence in that system will remain a long way off.