Massachusetts Court Dismisses 21,000 Drug Cases After State Chemist Falsified Evidence

Massachusetts Court Dismisses 21,000 Drug Cases After State Chemist Falsified Evidence

Overview

By
David Love

In what is being described as the largest single dismissal of wrongful criminal convictions in U.S. history, a Massachusetts court has dismissed over 21,000 drug-related cases after it was discovered that a state crime lab chemist falsified and fabricated evidence.

On April 19 in Boston, a state court judge vacated the convictions in the case of Bridgeman v. District Attorney for Suffolk County, which was filed by the ACLU of Massachusetts, the national ACLU, the state public defender’s office and law firm Fick & Marx LLP.

The drug convictions — which spanned the seven counties of Suffolk, Essex, Bristol, Middlesex, Plymouth, Norfolk and Cape & Islands — had relied on the doctored lab results of Annie Dookhan, whose misdeeds came to light in 2012 after she forged a colleague’s initials. The employee with the state Department of Public Health had lied about having a master’s degree, declared untested drug samples as positive and otherwise committed massive fraud in order to advance her career and build a reputation as an expert witness in drug trials.

In 2013, she pleaded guilty to 27 counts, including evidence tampering, perjury and obstruction of justice, and was sentenced to three to five years in prison, with two years of probation, according to The New York Times. She was recently paroled after serving three years, as UPI reported.

Dookhan’s work had impacted approximately 24,000 cases according to the ACLU of Massachusetts, with prosecutors moving to toss out 21,587 of the convictions. Out of 8,003 cases from Suffolk County, 7,886 were dismissed, as Masslive.com reported.

Jake Wark, press secretary for Suffolk County District Attorney Daniel F. Conley, told Atlanta Black Star that his office had learned of several cases in 2012 in which Dookhan had certified inert substances as illicit. “We immediately acted to terminate the prosecutions in those cases and, very fortunately, none was serving a sentence based solely on a Dookhan-related case,” Wark said. “Since that time, the appeals have been on procedural grounds, not factual ones. That is, the defendants didn’t claim to be innocent but rather claimed that they would not have pleaded guilty or, in a smaller number of cases, could have obtained a more favorable trial verdict, had Dookhan’s misconduct been known at the time of adjudication.”

The court ordered prosecutors to list the convictions they would move to dismiss and those cases they would choose to relitigate. Court documents acknowledged the “continuing adverse consequences of these convictions” on the wrongfully condemned, and the burden of these cases have imposed on the criminal justice system. “District Attorney Conley made the decision to focus only on the most serious convictions involving high-level or violent offenders,” Wark said. “So, while the re-tested drugs, scales, baggies, cutting agents, ledgers, phone records, surveillance video, independent witness statements and other evidence were likely still available and admissible in thousands of the lower-level cases, he moved to dismiss them and concentrate on the most serious 117 — about 1.5 percent of the total.”

Carl Williams, staff attorney for the ACLU of Massachusetts, said his organization faced resistance and had to sue the district attorney’s office to bring about the thousands of dismissals. He stated in a phone interview that this, “the largest dismissal of criminal cases based on a single court filing in history,” is part of a systemic problem involving prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges and jailers.

“This is the war on drugs,” Williams said of the larger implications of Dookhan. “Over 24,000 cases from eight years, and they called her superwoman because she was doing the bidding of the system of mass incarceration and the war on drugs. If it were anything else, if it were for rich people, for white people, this would not be allowed to stand” he added. “With the war on drugs, it is inevitable that you will have scandals involving injustice.”

The ACLU attorney also noted that 60 percent of these cases involved the criminalization of drug users. “That doesn’t help anyone who is struggling with drug addiction,” Williams said. “Some of these people who use drugs are in the juvenile system. It masks that we are dealing with children, they were children who possessed drugs,” he added, offering that these people did not commit a crime. “We are addicted to the idea that we can put people in jail and they will stop doing drugs. That is outrageous, because in jail, every form of drug is available. It is a public health situation, not a criminal incarceration situation.”

These wrongful convictions in the name of the war on drugs have taken their toll, the ACLU says, particularly among poor, Black and brown communities. People have lost their homes, their livelihoods, and, in some cases, have been deported from the country.

One of the Dookhan defendants, Kevin Bridgeman, is disabled and collects Social Security disability benefits. Bridgeman, who is a long-term volunteer at a nonprofit organization supporting the formerly incarcerated, pleaded guilty in 2005 and 2008 to cocaine possession and distribution charges, and in each case was sentenced to several years in prison. In both cases, he waived his right to a jury trial, but, had he known of Dookhan’s misconduct, would have gone to trial or sought different plea agreements.