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Massachusetts Supreme Court Tosses Thousands of Drug Cases After Lab Tech Scandal and Government Cover-Up

by Dale Chappell

The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts reached a decision in the Amherst lab scandal, where disgraced lab technician Sonja Farak tampered with and stole drugs from thousands of drug samples to be tested in criminal cases, by vacating and dismissing thousands of drug cases that were tied to the lab.

The storied and shocking details of Farak’s misconduct while employed as a chemist testing drugs for criminal cases across Western Massachusetts grew even more shocking when an investigation by the state’s highest court discovered that the Attorney General’s Office (“AG”) purposely withheld evidence to conceal the widespread impact of Farak’s actions. This “fraud on the court,” as the Court called it, “compromised the integrity of thousands of drug convictions” and required the Court to exercise its “superintendence authority over courts of the Commonwealth” to vacate and dismiss every criminal case affected by the scandal.

The Amherst lab on the campus of the University of Massachusetts had been in operation since the 1960s and was a satellite lab for the Hinton lab, where former lab technician Annie Dookhan was involved in her own lab scandal when it was discovered that she altered and faked test results from criminal cases in 2012. Sometime after Farak’s transfer to the Amherst lab in 2004, she started dipping into the lab’s methamphetamine samples. By 2009, she was stealing all kinds of drugs from criminal cases from the lab, even tampering with the computer system to cover up her crimes.

In January 2013, Farak’s misdeeds were exposed, and the State Police shut down the lab and notified the AG. Days later, Farak was arrested after cops found drugs and evidence seized from criminal cases in her car and work station at the lab. She pleaded guilty to tampering with evidence and drug possession charges in 2014.

The AG’s Office promised it would turn over all discovery to defendants whose cases may have been tied to the Farak scandal. However, when defense attorney Luke Ryan asked to inspect the Farak documents, the AG refused. Motions to compel production of the documents were denied by the superior court, based on the representations of the AG that further discovery was unnecessary.

Finally, Ryan’s motion to inspect was granted after Farak’s guilty plea, and he discovered she had been abusing drugs at the lab long before her arrest, contrary to the AG’s assertion that Farak’s conduct was limited to the period from 2012 to her arrest in 2013.

In 2015, the AG appointed two retired judges to investigate the claims raised by Ryan. The judges found “no evidence of prosecutorial misconduct or obstruction” by the AG’s Office. However, at a six-day evidentiary hearing in December 2016 after other defendants started filing similar discovery motions, it was discovered that Farak’s misconduct “created a problem of systemic magnitude,” and that the AG’s Office showed “reprehensible misconduct” by withholding evidence from the court.

In September 2017, the Committee for Public Counsel Services and other named defendants affected by the scandal filed a petition with the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts to remedy the egregious conduct by the AG’s Office. The relief requested was the vacatur of thousands of convictions tied to Farak. The Court agreed.

The Court noted that the burden of proving whether Farak’s misconduct created a systemic problem was not one to be shouldered by the defendants; instead, it was the government’s job to take steps to remedy the problem and to disclose any exculpatory evidence to the defendants. Where there is egregious conduct that is deliberate or intentional, such as here, prejudice may be presumed, and the “drastic remedy” of dismissal of the charges with prejudice may be appropriate, the Court instructed.

Unlike the Dookhan scandal, which did not involve government misconduct, the Court determined that dismissal with prejudice of the cases was proper because of the cover-up by the AG’s Office. The Court said such a remedy was needed “in order to protect the integrity of the criminal justice system.” The Court then ordered that all of the following cases be dismissed: (1) cases where Farak signed the certification of analysis, (2) any methamphetamine case tested at the lab during Farak’s employment at the lab, and (3) cases where drugs were tested at the Amherst lab on or after January 1, 2009, through January 18, 2013, regardless of who signed the certification of analysis.

Accordingly, the Court remanded to the county court to vacate and dismiss all cases meeting any of these criteria. See: Committee for Public Counsel Services v. Attorney General, 480 Mass. 700 (2018).

Writer’s note: Those who have had a federal sentence enhanced by one of these now-vacated drug convictions have the ability to challenge their federal sentence, even years later, under 28 U.S.C. § 2255 for reconsideration of their federal sentence without that prior conviction. However, you have just one year from the state court’s order vacating your conviction to file your § 2255 motion. See Cuevas v. United States, 778 F.3d 267 (1st Cir. 2015) (explaining that § 2255 was a proper remedy for challenging a federal sentence after vacatur of a prior drug conviction vacated by the state court in light of the Dookhan scandal, citing Supreme Court authority). Also, make sure your address is correct with the state court, so they can notify you of the court’s order vacating your conviction. 

 

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