More cases potentially tainted by high lab worker tossed out

October 11, 2018 - 5:24 pm

BOSTON (AP) — Thousands of additional drug cases tainted by a former chemist authorities say was high almost every day she worked at a state drug lab for eight years must be dismissed, Massachusetts' highest court ruled Thursday.

The Supreme Judicial Court's decision is the latest twist in a saga that has already resulted in the dismissal of more than 11,000 convictions and exposed that two former state prosecutors had withheld evidence about the scope of Sonja Farak's misconduct.

Cases that were tossed previously were those only involving evidence tested by Farak. The new order applies to cases worked on by other chemists while Farak was employed by the lab.

The state must dismiss all convictions that were based on evidence at the Amherst lab between Jan. 1, 2009, and when the lab closed on Jan. 18, 2013, the court said. All convictions involving methamphetamine tested during Farak's tenure also have to be dismissed, the court said.

"We conclude that Farak's widespread evidence tampering has compromised the integrity of thousands of drug convictions apart from those that the Commonwealth has agreed should be vacated and dismissed," the justices said in their ruling. "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," they wrote.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts and the Committee for Public Counsel Services had told the court that all cases involving drug samples tested at the Amherst lab during Farak's tenure should be dismissed, even if they were tested by another chemist.

Matt Segal, legal director of the ACLU of Massachusetts, called the court's ruling a "historic remedy."

"For years, civil rights lawyers and our clients have been saying that there was substantial wrongdoing in the lab scandal, not just by Sonja Farak, but by prosecutors, and today's decision confirms that we were right," Segal said.

It's unclear exactly how many additional cases may be dismissed, but lawyers say they expect it will be several thousand. Some people who will be affected may still be in prison, said Rebecca Jacobstein, an attorney with the Committee for Public Counsel Services, the state's public defender agency.

Northwestern District Attorney David Sullivan said in a statement that he hopes the judges' ruling is the final chapter of what he described as a "sad tale" that reflected "a decades-long attitude that drug testing for criminal cases could be done on the cheap."

Farak pleaded guilty in 2014 to stealing drugs from the state crime lab at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and was sentenced to 18 months behind bars.

A trial judge in 2017 found that two former assistant attorneys general misled the court and "tampered with the fair administration of justice" by withholding evidence about the scope of the chemist's misconduct.

The Farak cases are separate from more than 20,000 convictions that were tossed in April 2017 after another chemist, Annie Dookhan, was caught tampering with evidence and falsifying tests.

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