BOSTON (AP) — A Massachusetts court has ordered thousands of criminal drug convictions dismissed because of misconduct by Annie Dookhan, a chemist who for years tested evidence in a state lab.
Lawyers who fought for the cases to be dismissed call the ruling a historic victory for justice and fairness, but they are also seeking to counter fears that dangerous criminals will soon walk free from prisons around the state.
Here are some questions and answers about the Massachusetts drug lab scandal:
WHO IS ANNIE DOOKHAN?
Dookhan was hired by the state in 2003 as a chemist at the William A. Hinton State Laboratory in Boston, which tested drug evidence for criminal cases in eastern Massachusetts.
She resigned amid questions about whether she manipulated drug tests and falsified results. She was arrested in 2012 and later sentenced to three years in prison after pleading guilty to obstruction of justice, perjury and tampering with evidence. She was paroled last year.
WHAT DID THE MASSACHUSETTS COURT DECIDE?
Dookhan’s misconduct led to a five-year legal battle waged by the American Civil Liberties Union and others to dismiss some 24,000 drug convictions — involving about 20,000 individual defendants — that hinged at least in part on testing of drug evidence performed by Dookhan. On Thursday, the Supreme Judicial Court approved of throwing out 21,587 convictions, likely making it the largest single dismissal of criminal cases in U.S. history, according to the ACLU.
SO ARE PRISONERS BEING RELEASED?
In most cases, no.
The majority of defendants had already completed their sentences, and many had not been given prison time to begin with. The ACLU estimates 60 percent of the cases involved possession and not drug dealing, which normally brings stiffer sentences.
“The idea that prison doors are swinging open is just not one that meets with reality,” said Carl Williams, a staff attorney for the ACLU.
Still, the dismissals could indirectly lead to release from prison in certain instances. If, for example, a person had previous convictions and a Dookhan-tainted case was the so-called “third strike” that by law requires a mandatory sentence, erasing that third strike could take away the underpinnings of the sentence and lead to someone being freed.
WHAT COMES NEXT?
The high court’s order requires notices be sent within one month to all the affected Dookhan defendants, including hundreds of people whose cases were not dismissed at the request of prosecutors. Court documents show earlier attempts to reach many of these defendants by mail were unsuccessful.
The justices also ordered that electronic criminal history records be updated to reflect the dismissals. This is critical for people even if they already served the sentences, since a prior drug felony can stand in the way of employment and housing opportunities, or even bring deportation.
COULD THIS HAPPEN AGAIN?
The drug testing scandal led to a shake-up at the Hinton lab and jurisdiction of the facility was moved from the state public health agency to state police. Officials say new testing and reporting protocols are in place to make tampering less likely.
Yet Massachusetts is still grappling with thousands of cases potentially affected by the actions of another former drug lab chemist. Sonja Farak was convicted in 2014 of stealing cocaine from a crime lab in Amherst, where investigators said she was high almost every day she worked over eight years.
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