The Entire Massachusetts Criminal Justice System Is Tainted, Not Just the Dookhan Convictions

This blog originally appeared on the ACLU of Massachusetts website.

What state saddled its residents with 23,000 wrongful drug convictions, then dedicated millions of taxpayer dollars and years of public labor opposing efforts to get justice for the wrongfully convicted? Surprise, it’s progressive Massachusetts.

Massachusetts is seriously regressive on criminal justice issues. Despite massive scandals at the Hinton and Amherst drug labs and glaring racial inequities, our elected leaders too often fail to acknowledge what the criminal punishment system is actually doing — or to whom or how. But it doesn’t have to be this way. In the wake of two historic drug lab scandals, resulting in tens of thousands of tainted convictions and ruined lives, we in Massachusetts have an opportunity and obligation to fix the system.

Thus far, the opposite has happened here in the Bay State. Despite widespread knowledge of the abuse by Annie Dookhan at the Hinton lab and Sonja Farak at the Amherst lab, too many of the state’s top movers and shakers have ignored the problem. It took repeated legal challenges by the ACLU, the Committee for Public Counsel Services (CPCS), and lawyers at Fick & Marx and Foley Hoag to focus official attention on the extent of injustice arising from the drug lab scandals.

After years of foot-dragging by prosecutors, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in January ordered district attorneys to submit lists by April 18, 2017, of convictions they will slate for dismissal as a result of tainted evidence in the Dookhan scandal. The prosecutors reportedly will seek to vacate the vast majority of these cases.

If you think that is shocking, consider this: Over an 8-year period, roughly one in three drug cases prosecuted by Boston’s Suffolk County District Attorney Dan Conley may have involved tainted evidence.

An ACLU data scientist analyzed the records and discovered that 62 percent of Dookhan-tainted convictions were for drug possession, and over 90 percent were prosecuted in low-level, district courts. These facts contradict assertions by the state’s district attorneys that public safety required the preservation of the tainted convictions.

As we get closer to that April 18 day of reckoning, the people of Massachusetts should know that while the corrupt chemist from the Hinton lab has already been convicted, incarcerated, and released, the rest of the justice system has done very little to address the fundamental failures that allowed the so-called “rogue” chemist to violate so many people’s rights for so long.

Most media attention has focused on Dookhan, while the role of the system around her has barely been discussed. It was that system that enabled her abuse, covered it up, and then fought to preserve the convictions that stemmed from it. So as you read media coverage and listen to elected officials talk about the drug lab crises in the coming weeks, remember the following context.

First, the soon-coming dismissal of most of the tainted Hinton lab convictions would not have happened without nearly five years of litigation by ACLU, CPCS, and pro bono attorneys. The district attorneys and the rest of the system were prepared to let these tainted convictions stand, even though that would have meant that thousands of victims of the crisis — people who have to live with the collateral consequences of these convictions on their records — would continue to be victimized by the state’s egregious misconduct for the rest of their lives.

Worse yet, prosecutors repeatedly suggested that the Dookhan scandal had been solved, when in truth there were always over 20,000 convictions that had never been challenged in court.

Fortunately, beyond the public-interest attorneys who doggedly pursued this case, there were other heroes: the justices and court personnel who ruled in favor of justice as well as the community activists, among them defendants victimized by the misconduct at issue, who have pushed for systemic reforms in the face of demeaning rhetoric about the supposed character flaws of people caught up in the war on drugs.

Second, the crisis is not the result of one bad actor. Annie Dookhan, the “rogue” chemist at the center of this debacle, was free to falsify drug lab results for eight full years because the system is designed to facilitate convictions, while simultaneously being utterly ill-equipped to either provide equal justice to defendants or restore justice to the wrongfully convicted.

In response to the outrageous abuse at the Hinton Lab, and now a second drug lab scandal involving a second chemist and thousands more tainted convictions, some officials are calling for building better drug labs. But we need to do more: first, create a formal process for investigating wrongful convictions, and second, end the war on drugs.

Massachusetts leaders would do well to look to places like Texas as models for how to own up to mistakes and quickly set about fixing them by exonerating people wrongfully convicted of drug crimes. Right now, Attorney General Jeff Sessions is planning to undo Obama-era changes that began to shift federal forensic science authority from law enforcement to scientists. Given these moves and the recent scandals at Massachusetts labs, it’s more important than ever for state lawmakers to take swift action to create a neutral body responsible for upholding scientific standards and investigating wrongful convictions.

Ultimately, our state leaders must match rhetoric about the war on drugs with action and stop arresting, prosecuting, and incarcerating people for drug offenses. Everyone acknowledges that substance abuse requires a public health response and will never be solved by chains and cages. Despite this widespread recognition — and ample science to back it up — police continue arresting people over drugs, district attorneys continue prosecuting them, and jails and prisons continue caging them.

The recent drug lab scandals in Massachusetts are the inevitable result of a system that is dedicated to punishment, instead of healing. If there’s one takeaway from the breathtaking sight of prosecutors dismissing tens of thousands of tainted drug convictions this week, let it be that those convictions never should have been pursued in the first place.

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Anonymous

I spent the best part of a year court-watching in MA Family Courts.
I witnessed a judge make a reasonable ruling in one case, and them saw the order that he signed, which bore ZERO resemblance to his ruling from the bench, and unjustly screwed the male half of the case.
I'm also very familiar with a case in which Bristol county deputies and town cops conspired and testified falsely in a domestic assault case.
MA is a complete sewer.
You haven't even scratched the surface.

Anonymous

I've spent almost 16 years going to probate court in MA. it's absolutely absurd, the judges don't follow laws, they do whatever they want. I sat in court all day one day and saw the judge just get angrier and angrier as the day went on and then he started throwing people in jail left and right. I couldn't believe it. Broken doesn't even begin to describe MA's justice system.

Anonymous

Anthony Romero is gay-gay.

Anthony Romero ...

Hey dude we get it... you don't like Anthony Romero and think he's gay. Whatever, so what if he is or isn't. Troll your way some other place because we don't care.

Corporate Prisons

The problem is exacerbated by the proliferation of private prisons and jails. The purpose of these corporations is to make money. They only make money of more people are imprisoned. To accomplish this they partner with local law enforcement agencies to set quotas. Yes, quotas on how many people should be in jail at a certain time.

Local sheriffs in many states are paid kickbacks and campaign contributions from these corporates. They are as evil as the corporate prison who cares not for the human but for the Almighty Dollar they use as their alter.

Our constitution does not provide for the "private" incarceration of public citizens. Every prisoner in a private jail is held illegally.

laMissy

Many of those undocumented people awaiting detention are also held in for-profit detention centers, which have a quota of beds.

Anonymous

Also, those private prisons cut corners to make more money, and one of the ways they do this is by not hiring enough guards. And due to that, prisoners are left in solitary confinement 23 hours a day with that one hour to shower and excersize. This country is becoming unrecognizable. Government is not a buisiness and should not be run like one, for very obvious reasons. Corruption will always result when the money is the main goal. We are supposed to be a democracy, and champions of fairness and equality, but we have allowed the persuit of money to corrupt the entire system. Im disgusted with us. The criminal justice system has become draconian. Our desire for punishment is perverted and extreme. The proof is in how many people we incarcerate and let go mad after years, yes YEARS, in solitary confinement. We really must stop Sessions from reversing the gains we were finally making. Its just insane.

Glen

I think we all sort of wish Massachusetts was as unique as they think they are.

CPCS

If you were convicted of a drug offense in Massachusetts between 2003 and 2012, you can call the Dookhan Case Hotline at 1-888-999-2881 in order to find out if Annie Dookhan worked on your case. It is operated by attorneys from C.P.C.S., the Massachusetts public defender agency.

You can also submit an online inquiry at: www.publiccounsel.net/dlclu

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