Tens of thousands of prisoners across the state of Massachusetts who were convicted as a result of drug tests overseen by one state scientist may soon challenge these convictions in court.
Earlier this month, the Supreme Judicial Court handed down a unanimous verdict that will allow individuals who were sent to prison based on evidence provided by state chemist Annie Dookhan to petition the courts for a new hearing without risking additional or more severe penalties. Dookhan admitted to tampering with and forging evidence that sabotaged a number of cases.
“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,” Matthew Segal, the legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, told The New York Times.
It is suspected that Dookhan, who pleaded guilty in 2013 to a myriad of charges, including obstruction of justice, perjury and tampering with evidence, failed to give drug samples the appropriate testing before sending positive confirmation to prosecutors. For nearly a decade, Dookhan is believed to have corrupted the criminal justice system by falsifying signatures, mishandling samples and lying about her qualifications.
Reports indicate that over 300 of “Dookhan’s Defendants” have already had their convictions overturned and have been released from prison. But most of the individuals who stand to benefit from the recent decision have already served their time and are now living under the strain of a bogus conviction. These people will now have an opportunity to apply for post-conviction relief and to do so without the fear of receiving additional punishment.
In other words, the worst possible scenario is that a defendant will not have his or her conviction thrown out. No additional jail time or probationary measures will be imposed.
Some prosecutors, however, are concerned that the court’s latest verdict will give criminals an unjustifiable second chance.
Jake Wark, a spokesperson for the Suffolk District Attorney’s Office, told The Boston Globe that Dookhan’s actions have ultimately given drug dealers “nothing to lose and everything to gain,” by setting the stage for their “evidence-based admissions of guilt” to be overturned.
“Evidence in a drug case isn’t limited to the drugs: there is almost always additional evidence such as scales, packaging, cutting agents, cellphone records and the defendant’s actions before, during and after arrest,’’ Wark said.
The state initially believed that around 40,000 criminal cases had been corrupted by Dookhan’s negligence, but that number has since been cut in half. The truth is that no one is certain just how many cases could potentially be affected.
That is why the Supreme Judicial Court nearly imposed a “global remedy,” which would have eliminated the convictions for all of the defendants affected by Dookhan’s misconduct. Instead, the ruling simply suggests that local prosecutors do everything in their power to expedite the identification process of defendants impacted by the outcome of this case.