The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court announced last week that it will vacate 21,587 drug conviction cases that were connected to disgraced chemist, Annie Dookhan, who tampered with and falsified evidence for over eight years in a Massachusetts drug-testing lab.
This is the largest dismissal of wrongful convictions in U.S. history.
The dramatic step, which specialists called unprecedented in scope, follows years of litigation by defendants whose cases involved evidence that was falsely analyzed by Dookhan.
“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 American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts in a statement on the organization’s website.
The outrageous and massive drug-testing scandal involved Annie Dookhan who, in 2013, pleaded guilty to 27 counts, including obstruction of justice, perjury and tampering with evidence.
Dookhan’s admission prompted widespread concern in the defense community that any of the drug tests that passed through Dookhan’s hands could potentially be inaccurate or falsified, according to the ACLU of Massachusetts.
This past January, the Massachusetts Supreme Court ordered lists of the nearly 24,000 cases connected to her, known as the “Dookhan defendants,” that could be dismissed.
Fully 98.5 percent of the cases deemed eligible for relief were in fact dismissed, according to the Innocence Project.
Justice Carol S. Ball of Superior Court in Suffolk called the consequences of Dookhan’s actions “nothing short of catastrophic.”
In addition to prison time, individuals with drug convictions routinely face problems finding employment and housing, getting school or professional loans and immigration problems, to name a few.
Dookhan admitted that she declared drug samples positive without even testing them, that she forged signatures, lied and embellished her own credentials to bolster her standing as an expert witness in court.
Experts say the Dookhan scandal is unmatched in wiping away so many convictions at once.
“I am not aware of anything remotely close to it,” said Sandra Guerra Thompson, a law professor at the University of Houston.
“Today is a good day for justice in Massachusetts for thousands of people who have been wronged by the criminal punishment system,” said Ezekiel Edwards, director of the National ACLU’s Criminal Law Reform Project.
“But this day would never have been needed if the powers that be had taken a smarter, more thoughtful, more public health-oriented approach to drugs,” Edwards continued. “Widespread injustice like this should prompt not just Massachusetts, but every state, to declare an end to our country’s failed, costly, unfair War on drugs, and to reduce the thousands of unnecessary arrests and prosecutions taking place every day across this country.”
Dookhan served three years in prison and was released on parole in April 2016.