According to the American Civil Liberties Union, the decision this week by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court to vacate tens of thousands of drug conviction cases is the “largest dismissal of wrongful convictions in U.S. history.”
The ruling comes after years of legal battles over the case of Annie Dookhan, a state lab technician who was convicted in 2013 of tampering with and fabricating drug tests in multiple criminal cases, according to the ACLU.
Dookhan was hired by the state in 2003 and resigned after questions emerged about her work that helped put drug convictions on thousands of defendants’ criminal records in the state. According to The Washington Post, she was arrested in 2012 and sentenced to three years in prison.
As the ACLU notes:
During her more than eight-year tenure at the lab, Dookan handled approximately 40,000 cases. She admitted to tampering with at least two dozen cases and also fabricating test results, prompting widespread concern amongst many in the defense community that any of the tens of thousands of drug tests used as evidence in approximately 20,000 conviction cases were potentially inaccurate or falsified.
For several years, the ACLU, the Massachusetts Public Defender’s Office and private law firm Fick & Marx LLP have been calling for these drug cases handled by Dookan to be vacated en masse. Last Wednesday, the state’s supreme court agreed.
As the Post notes, most of the defendants had already completed their sentences, while others had served no time. Most of the charges stem from drug possession.
Equally crucial, the court ordered the defendants’ criminal histories purged of these specific drug charges, which is vital for employment and housing opportunities for many of those involved. For some immigrants who were convicted, having a felony criminal record erased could help them avoid being targeted for deportation.
While the court’s order is massive in scope, more orders to vacate may be forthcoming on illegitimate drug convictions in Massachusetts. Another drug lab technician, Sonja Farak, was convicted in 2014 of stealing and using drugs from the state lab. That case involves another 18,000 convictions that could be overturned.
According to the ACLU, prosecutors had been ordered to investigate Farak in 2013. But they apparently misled the court by saying that Farak had only used drugs for a few months, when in reality she had been using for eight years. Prosecutors now face accusations of misconduct over the handling of that investigation, adding yet more fuel to the fire that the country’s drug war has little to do with justice.