After years of injustice, thousands of people wrongfully convicted on drug charges in Massachusetts will finally have their convictions overturned. The ruling centers on drug lab tests that were falsified by a state-employed chemist named Annie Dookhan.
“The state’s highest court on Wednesday ordered prosecutors to drop a large portion of the more than 24,000 drug convictions affected by the misconduct of former state drug lab chemist Annie Dookhan, issuing an urgent call to resolve a scandal that has plagued the legal system since 2012.”
Dookhan was imprisoned in 2013 after being charged with a suite of crimes relating to her years-long career of deceit, where she falsified tens of thousands of reports to jail innocent people. She would mark results as ‘positive’ for illegal substances without actually testing them, even adding cocaine to samples when no cocaine was present.
At sentencing, Judge Carol S. Ball stated, “Innocent persons were incarcerated, guilty persons have been released to further endanger the public, millions and millions of public dollars are being expended to deal with the chaos Ms. Dookhan created, and the integrity of the criminal justice system has been shaken to the core.”
After the shocking revelations, some of the ‘Dookhan-tainted’ convictions were overturned, but when 2017 came around, 24,391 of those convictions still remained. Most of these people were poor and charged simply with possession. Many remained in prison or on parole, and many more were denied jobs and housing due to their criminal records.
The Massachusetts high court ruled that each defendant had a right to a hearing, but the cost and logistics of doing so would be unfeasible. Prosecutors sent cryptic, confusing letters to the defendants to supposedly inform defendants of their rights, which prompted the ACLU to get involved.
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Incredibly, state prosecutors were fighting to keep the convictions in place, despite justices saying these cases involved “egregious government misconduct.” Despite being victimized by a serial liar under an immoral war on drugs, each defendant had to appeal their case individually.
“It’s as though the state is almost addicted to prosecuting its way out of the problem of drug abuse,” said Mathew Segal, legal director at the ACLU of Massachusetts. “The addiction is so strong that the state won’t even walk away from convictions tainted by fraud. And they could walk away. Prosecutors could walk away from these cases right now.”
But prosecutors didn’t walk away, and the state’s high court finally put an end to most of the injustice.
“The court said district attorneys across the state must “exercise their prosecutorial discretion and reduce the number of relevant Dookhan defendants by moving to vacate and dismiss with prejudice all drug cases the district attorneys would not or could not reprosecute if a new trial were ordered.” The cases affected by the ruling include people who pleaded guilty, were convicted, or admitted that prosecutors had enough evidence to convict them. By vacating the cases, the convictions would effectively be erased…
The court said defendants whose cases aren’t dismissed should receive a notice that their cases had been affected by Dookhan’s misconduct. Then, any indigent defendants would receive public counsel to explore requests to vacate their pleas or get new trials.”
Almost all of the defendants convicted of simple possession have already served their jail sentence. Being locked in a cage for a non-crime is enough to scar a person for life, but at least they will not be hindered the rest of their life by a conviction.
This scandal demonstrates one way in which the war on drugs provides opportunity for the State to ruin lives for the victimless behavior of possessing a substance deemed illegal by arbitrary, baseless means. When control of the drug lab was transferred to the Massachusetts State Police, several red flags on Dookhan were ignored by superiors, and the lab silenced whistleblowers who reported Dookhan.
It all points to an insidious obsession by government to attack citizens – especially the less fortunate who have no means to fight the system – by treating drug use as criminal behavior instead of a health issue. It’s past time to end the war on drugs, which will prevent the kind of abuse carried out by Dookhan and her superiors.