On Tuesday, probably one of the biggest, if not the biggest, dismissal of wrongful convictions occurred in a Boston courthouse, after seven Massachusetts counties’ prosecutors let go of more than 21,000 low-level drug cases fouled by rogue lab chemist’s work.
Due to sheer amount of corrupted convictions, district attorneys used compact discs to distribute the lists of cases they were letting go of and those they believed they could re-prosecute.
The exact number of the cases involving the disgraced chemist, Annie Dookhan, will not be clear until Wednesday, after the courts finishes processing the lists. The dismissals were fought by The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts which did their own calculations and reached that 320 cases have been dropped out of 21,907.
The dismissals have been praised by defense lawyers who claim that the system values convictions over a correct process.
ACLU lawyer, Carl Williams, said: “This was a mistake that comes from the war on drugs.”
Defendants with lengthy criminal histories will be re-prosecuted. However, prosecutors have said that the dropped cases had defendants with long records, and they have probably committed the crimes for which they had been convicted. Prosecutors also said that most of the defendants had pleaded guilty before Dookhan’s transgressions were uncovered in 2012.
In a statement, the district attorney in Suffolk County, Daniel Conley said: “If there had been evidence that any of these defendants was actually innocent, we would not have hesitated to dismiss the case outright and exonerate the defendant immediately.”
Of the 15,570 cases undercut by Dookhan, Conley said he’ll pursue 117.
The legal fight took five years. It lasted longer than the process of discovering, prosecuting and punishing Dookhan. She had worked at the William A. Hinton State Laboratory Institute in Boston, and admitted to altering evidence, falsifying test results and lying about it. She has served three years in prison and was released last year.
The reason for Dookhan actions is still unknown. According to former colleagues, she had a drive and compulsion to overachieve, sometimes even if it was by taking shortcuts. Her work made her the most productive analyst, which impressed her superiors but made her co-workers weary. However, investigators found that their worry wasn’t addressed.
Prosecutors tried to find a way to uphold the convictions, and then the defendants can challenge them later. However, defense lawyers and civil rights groups stated that the cases should be dropped as it’s the only way to achieve justice.
But the state’s high court chose in January a third solution. It ruled that district attorneys would concentrate on a small subsection of cases they wanted to retry, and forget about the rest.
On Tuesday, the prosecutors submitted their answers individually to the Suffolk County Courthouse in Boston.
112 of more than 1,500 cases will be pursued by Bristol County District Attorney Thomas Quinn III. While one case will be kept by Cape & Islands District Attorney Michael O’Keefe and drop 1,067.
In a statement, O’Keefe said: “Some are having their case dismissed because we believe that the integrity of the system of justice is more important than their conviction. Others whose cases are of significance and can be proven independent of the actions of this chemist will not be dismissed.”
According to civil rights advocates and defense lawyers, the convictions created difficulties for defendants to find jobs and housing or get student loans. The drug convictions were used to strengthen the sentences of those who were convicted of more serious crimes. While in other cases non US citizens were threatened with deportation.
During the past decade, thousands of convictions in eight states have been undermined by lad scandals, as per data obtained by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. Massachusetts has another case beside Dookhan’s. A scandal in a second lab has threatened thousands more convictions after a chemist admitted to taking drugs while working.
Efforts to regulate operations at America’s criminal drug labs has been emphasized by Dookhan’s case. The criminal justice system has been increasingly dependent on forensic laboratories’ work, which made scientists ask for all labs to be professionally accredited. This process will necessitate outside reviews, which could have identified Dookhan’s offences much earlier, according to experts.
Jack Mario, a retired laboratory chemist who was a consultant in the Dookhan investigation said: “I think the situation might have been different at an accredited lab because there would have been more eyes looking.”