Prosecutors Overturn More Than 21,000 Drug Convictions In Wake Of Massive Drug Lab Misconduct

from the you're-free-to-go-x-21k dept

Back in 2012, it was discovered that a Massachusetts state drug lab technician had falsified thousands of tests submitted as evidence in criminal cases. Technician Annie Dookhan was able to “produce” three times as many test results as her coworkers, mostly by never actually testing the submitted substance — something that went unquestioned for far too long. Dookhan went to jail for three years, but many of those convicted on faulty evidence spent far more time locked up.

Dookhan’s prolific fakery resulted in a list of 40,000 cases possibly tainted by her work. This list was turned over to prosecutors, who managed over the next few years to trim it down to 23,000 possibly-tainted convictions. Faced with the daunting task of sorting this all out and notifying former defendants, the district attorney’s office decided the best approach was to do as little as possible.

First, with an unbelievable amount of hubris, it argued that those who had already served time for bogus convictions likely didn’t care whether or not they’d been exonerated post facto. It can’t be that the prosecutor’s office doesn’t know drug convictions keep people unemployed/underemployed and/or car-less/homeless. It appears the office simply has no empathy for those it’s helped convict.

Then it did as little as it could to inform those who had been possibly wrongfully convicted. It sent out poorly-targeted mass mailings that looked like government junk mail, rather than the life-changing exonerations they possibly were. No research was performed to ensure current addresses were used and the letter itself didn’t inform recipients of their legal rights and remedies.

A court finally stepped in and ordered the DA’s office to come up with a plan of adequately addressing this backlog of 21,000 possibly-wrongful convictions. These plans would have to be approved by the court, which obviously felt the DA’s office would mount another half-hearted effort without direct supervision.

Faced with having to lift a few fingers to locate and inform citizens of their rights, remedies, and their chance to un-fuck their lives, the DA’s office has opted again to do as little as possible. However, in this case, the minimum of effort is probably the course of action it should have taken in the first place.

On April 18, nearly five years after Dookhan’s confession, prosecutors submitted lists of about 21,587 tainted cases with flawed convictions that they have agreed to overturn. The state’s highest court must still formally dismiss the convictions.

Once that happens, many of the cleared defendants will be freed from the collateral consequences that can result from drug convictions, including loss of access to government benefits, public housing, driver’s licenses and federal financial aid for college. Convicted green card holders can also become eligible for deportation, and employers might deny someone a job due to a drug conviction on their record.

The very small number of cases the state isn’t dismissing — 320 of them, according to prosecutors — shows how heavily the state relies on drug lab evidence to secure convictions. These cases are ones prosecutors feel would still hold up in court even without drug lab evidence. Possibly there are other cases with similarly strong evidence once Dookhan’s fakery has been excised, but the DA’s office has had zero desire to reexamine most of the 23,000 cases Dookhan’s work affected.

Odds are, there are a great many people who wrongfully served more jail time than Dookhan rightfully did. The fallout from this is going to cost Massachusetts taxpayers a whole lot of money. Not only did they pay Dookhan to not perform her duties for several years, but they’ll be on the hook for the inevitable lawsuits this mass exoneration will produce.

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Comments on “Prosecutors Overturn More Than 21,000 Drug Convictions In Wake Of Massive Drug Lab Misconduct”

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tom (profile) says:

Assuming she makes one, wonder if the state will defend a claim of ‘Qualified Immunity’ when folks start suing Ms Dookhan for false imprisonment damages.

Given the footdraging by the DA’s office, a case might be made for stripping them of Immunity.

Unless QI is stripped, the sad thing is that the bad guys in this won’t bear the cost, it will be the folks paying taxes so these DA’s could brag about their conviction rates.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

She doesn’t get qualified immunity. Qualified immunity applies when you violate someone’s rights in a situation where the law is unclear at the time. For example, if you were the first cop to make someone wait at a traffic stop while you got the drug dog, you would get qualified immunity, because the courts had not yet ruled that you couldn’t do that and it wasn’t totally obvious which way they would rule.

Faking drug test results doesn’t fall into that category – it’s clearly illegal, and nobody needs a court ruling to know that.

But whether she has qualified immunity or not, that won’t save the taxpayers. If there are 20,000 people suing her, then even if she has a million dollars in assets and the lawyer gets nothing, they’re all going to get only $50 each from her. I’m thinking they’re going to want way more than $50 each. So if they CAN sue the government, they WILL, whether or not they also sue her.

The Wanderer (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

I understand the reason for the “qualified immunity” doctrine, but it always seems to me as if it creates a bit of a Catch-22 situation.

First cop does X. Court says “No previous ruling saying you can’t do X; qualified immunity.” Case does not proceed; no ruling saying “you can’t do X” is handed down.

Second cop does X. Court says “No previous ruling saying you can’t do X; qualified immunity.” Case does not proceed; no ruling saying “you can’t do X” is handed down.

If you can’t get far enough to get a ruling saying “you can’t do X” unless someone else has already gotten one, how does the precedent necessary to strip qualified immunity ever get established?

TheResidentSkeptic says:

1 down, 49 to go...

And defense lawyers in 49 other states are lining up to see if they can get in on this… if just one worker in each drug lab in each state was faking results… how many false convictions will that be? How many records to be expunged? How many lives to be made whole? How many Billions will this cost before it is all over?

This is the result of the “War on Drugs”. Looks like everyone lost but the government agencies, contractors, and for-profit prisons making money from it.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Is she still alive?

Honestly, although I could understand it, I hope that wouldn’t be the reaction. The system that will happily jail people for years for a positive drug test with no corroborating evidence is at fault here (note the 320 who are still convicted despite the tests being invalid).

She is to blame for what she did, but not for the system that allowed it to have so much devastating impact on so many lives. That system needs to be fixed, else this will happen again and again (assuming it’s not already happening, which is likely).

Chuck says:

Re: Is she still alive?

Keep in mind, here in the US we segregate our prisons, so she’ll only be stuck with whatever percentage of her 21,000 fake results are female.

I have no idea what that percentage is, but I’m certain it’s less than half since the legal justice system is one of the few places where being female conveys a discriminatory advantage, rather than the disadvantage is is in the rest of society.

Yay, feminism? Maybe?

Pixelation says:

Eye witness testimony

This is the scary one. “Even questioning by a lawyer can alter the witness’s testimony because fragments of the memory may unknowingly be combined with information provided by the questioner, leading to inaccurate recall.”

How many people have been wrongfully convicted because of eye witness testimony that was created by cops and lawyers questioning suspects and witnesses? Juries tend to believe eye witnesses accounts. Railroad anyone?

Chuck says:

Re: Eye witness testimony

How many? Millions. Tens of millions. Maybe even hundreds of millions.

People forget that the legal justice systems – both in America and all the other “democracies” around the world – have been wild west shows for centuries. Only recently, with the advent of DNA, has there been even a vague semblance of logic, reason, or science anywhere within a country mile of a courtroom, anywhere in the world.

As late as the 1980’s, hair evidence was used as definitive proof of guilt, spouted by supposed experts from official state crime labs coast to coast, despite the fact that it had been debunked since the 1960’s. The points system used to match fingerprints is also ripe for abuse. For decades, ever since the 1930’s, state experts would take the stand and tell the jury how, out of 11 points they compared, 9 were a match. They would conveniently omit that they COULD compare up to 19 or even 21 points, but a quick glance made it blatantly obvious that would work against a conviction because the remaining 8-10 points were VERY far off, so instead they chose the outdated testing method because it made for better testimony at trial.

There are not oddities. This was common pattern and practice around the world for several decades. Prior to the inclusion of any scientific evidence at all in trials – something that was true of virtually all trials before the 1920’s – they were virtually ALL eyewitness testimony. It was not uncommon for an entire town in the midwest to get together, decide a certain person needed to die, commit a crime, and all agree to lie at trial to frame the person in question. The sheriff and magistrate judge who typically presided over these trials were often in attendance and had no qualms about keeping silent when it came time for the trial and eventual hanging.

Justice has always been blind. Unfortunately, it’s always only been blind in the eye that looks towards the defendant. It’s always paying close attention to the prosecution so it knows how to rule.

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