The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has confirmed the dismissal of 21,587 drug convictions based on tainted evidence and fraud by state drug lab chemist Annie Dookhan. It is the single largest dismissal of wrongful convictions in the nation's history, according to the ACLU of Massachusetts.
"Today is a major victory for justice and fairness, and for thousands of people in the Commonwealth who were unfairly convicted of drug offenses," said Matthew Segal, Legal Director of the ACLU of Massachusetts. "Unfortunately, the victims of this crisis waited far too long for justice. It shouldn't have taken years of litigation by the ACLU, public defenders, and pro bono lawyers to address this stain on the Commonwealth's justice system."
Annie Dookhan began working at the Hinton State Laboratory Institute in 2004, and from her first year on the job, she claimed to have tested three times more drug samples than any of her colleagues, the Washington Post reported. Although she consistently reported unrealistic numbers of test results, supervisors did not review her work until 2010, and even then audited only her paperwork and did not retest her samples.
In 2011, she was caught forging a colleague's initials and suspended from lab duties. She resigned in 2012, and told police that she had falsified and fabricated evidence for years. In addition to forging her co-workers' initials, she had not actually tested all of the drug samples, but instead identified them as what they were suspected to be and, if a retest revealed the sample was not what she said it was, she would contaminate it to match the results she had given to prosecutors.
In 2013, Dookhan pleaded guilty to 27 counts of misleading investigators, tampering with evidence, and filing false reports. She was sentenced to three years in prison plus probation and was released a year ago.
Following years of litigation, the state's highest court in January ordered district attorneys in eight Boston-area counties to dismiss the vast majority of more than 20,000 tainted convictions. The Supreme Judicial Court said Dookhan's misconduct had "cast a shadow over the entire criminal justice system." The court confirmed the dismissal of 21,587 drug convictions in an order issued last week.
As Daniel Marx, a volunteer lawyer for the so-called "Dookhan defendants," said in a statement, these wrongly convicted people have served lengthy prison sentences and have "continued to suffer the harsh collateral consequences of their tainted convictions, which limited employment prospects, diminished housing opportunities and threatened lawful immigration status." Low-income communities and communities of color have been especially hard hit by the collateral consequences of drug convictions. People have been denied professional licenses, had their driver's licenses seized, been evicted from their homes, and even deported.
Still more wrongfully convicted people are awaiting relief in the wake of disclosures last year that another chemist, Sonja Farak, was stealing and using drug samples while doing analysis at the Massachusetts state drug lab.