BOSTON — Prosecutors are being pressured to dismiss tens of thousands of cases tainted by a drug lab scandal following a ruling by the state’s highest court.
Last month, the Supreme Judicial Court ordered district attorneys to review more than 24,000 drug cases and convictions tainted because of misconduct by former state chemist Annie Dookhan. The court gave prosecutors until April 18 to come up with a list of defendants whose convictions they intend to dismiss or retry.
But the court rejected requests for a “global dismissal” of cases for which Dookhan examined evidence, as sought by the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts and the Committee for Public Counsel Services.
Now, a new coalition that includes the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School and the nonprofit Ex-Prisoners and Prisoners Organizing for Community Advancement is demanding that prosecutors dismiss all the cases “with prejudice.”
In a letter to the DAs, the groups say full exoneration is the only way to help people with drug convictions that were based on Dookhan’s testing and who “continue to suffer consequences including trauma, loss of public housing and benefits, deportation, and criminal records.”
Dismissing cases “with prejudice” keeps prosecutors from refiling charges.
“It is a cliché in Massachusetts that we can’t arrest or prosecute our way out of the crisis of drug addiction,” the groups’ Feb. 27 letter read. “Nonetheless, your offices not only continue to prosecute new drug offenses but have wasted precious public resources ‘protecting’ tainted convictions.”
Case by case
Prosecutors, who have the power to dismiss the tainted convictions, have said challenges should be heard on a case-by-case basis, as they’ve been doing. They say hundreds of defendants whose cases involved Dookhan have successfully appealed convictions, and there’s no need to dismiss all of the cases.
Dookhan resigned from the state Department of Public Health’s drug lab in 2012. She was convicted a year later of tampering with evidence by mixing controlled substances or falsely certifying the presence of illegal drugs. She served 2 1/2 years in prison.
In court filings, DAs say they’ve spent “thousands of hours” creating a list and tracking down about 20,000 defendants. Letters were sent to notify defendants that their convictions might be reconsidered. At least 5,767 letters were returned undelivered, according to court documents filed by DAs.
In Essex County, an estimated 3,500 cases were affected by Dookhan’s tests, and the district attorney’s office has to date reviewed hundreds of prior drug convictions.
“We’ve already dismissed hundreds of cases and expect that we will dismiss many more,” said Carrie Kimball Monahan, a spokeswoman for District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett.
Blodgett’s office is checking with law enforcement agencies to see if drugs are still available for retesting, and it might end up retrying some of the more serious cases, she said.
Kimball Monahan noted that the office views drug addiction as a public safety issue and has several diversion programs for addicts. It is seeking to uphold convictions only in major cases, not drag low-level offenders back into a courtroom.
“We’re really only interested in the more serious cases that involve trafficking and distribution,” she said. “People are dying from opioid addiction at levels we’ve never seen before. So we need to protect the convictions of people who profited from selling a deadly product.”
A spokeswoman for Middlesex County District Attorney Marian Ryan declined to comment, but said the office was reviewing Dookhan cases ahead of the high court’s April deadline.
Prosecutors across the state have complained about the cost of reviewing tens of thousands of drug convictions. The court’s ruling didn’t provide money to conduct the reviews, DAs have pointed out.
“We recognize that the implementation of this protocol will substantially burden the district attorneys, the Committee for Public Counsel Services, and the courts,” Chief Justice Ralph Gants wrote in the ruling. “But we also recognize that Dookhan’s misconduct has substantially burdened the due process rights of many thousands of defendants whose convictions rested on her tainted drug analysis.”
Andrea James, founder and director of Families for Justice as Healing, said prosecutors’ handling of the Dookhan drug scandal was “justice deferred” and an example of a “corrupted system in which prosecutors prioritize convictions over the well-being of our people.”
The high court’s ruling ordered the state to assign lawyers to indigent defendants seeking to vacate their pleas or move for new trials.
The coalition wants the DAs to provide financial assistance to defendants to help them expunge records and restore public benefits, as well.
“The scandal continues to impact people to this day because of your refusal to do the right thing,” the groups wrote to prosecutors. “Protecting convictions instead of your constituents serves no public good and in fact endangers individuals, families and communities.”
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for The Salem News and its sister newspapers and websites. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.