Tuesday, April 18, 2017, was the deadline for prosecutors to determine what to do about convictions impacted by the Annie Dookhan evidence-tampering scandal. Massachusetts prosecutors decided to drop more than 21,000 drug cases implicated by the scandal. The dismissal of these cases was approved by the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) on April 19th.
Annie Dookhan Scandal
Annie Dookhan was a lab technician at William A. Hinton State Laboratory Institute, a forensic drug laboratory, in Boston from 2003 to 2012. Allegations surrounding her work surfaced in 2011, and in 2012, Dookhan confessed to misconduct regarding drug testing of criminal defendants. Dookhan tampered with evidence and fabricated drug results in test samples encompassing over 40,000 criminal cases. Following a plea of guilty in 2013 to 17 counts of tampering evidence, 8 counts of obstruction of justice, and 1 count of falsely claiming to have a graduate degree, Dookhan served three years in prison.
After a few years of prosecutors dealing with the affected case on a case-by-case basis, on January 18, 2017, in Bridgeman v. District Attorney for Suffolk County, the SJC ruled in an opinion by Chief Justice Gants that prosecutors should only keep a small percentage of the affected cases for prosecution, and dismiss the rest of the cases.
Defense attorneys as well as civil rights groups, including the ACLU, argued that the only way to ensure justice was to have all of the cases implicated by the drug scandal dropped. In contrast, prosecutors argued that defendants themselves should be responsible for challenging their convictions.
The SJC decided that the implicated cases will be handled in three phases. First, prosecutors must reduce the number of relevant “Dookhan defendants” by moving to vacate with prejudice cases they would not like to re-prosecute. Second, prosecutors must give adequate notice to defendants whose cases are not dismissed. And, third, CPCS shall assign counsel to implicated defendants who wish for the possibility of moving to vacate their plea or have a new trial.
The SJC further noted that the financial burdens involved with notifying defendants rest with the prosecutors. Finally, the convictions of defendants who pled guilty before the tainted evidence was used against them will still stand.
Prosecutors were given until Tuesday, April 18th to figure out which cases to drop and which cases they are willing to re-prosecute.
Over 21,000 low-level drug cases are being dropped from the more than 24,000 cases of those who had been found guilty of a drug charge where Dookhan tested the alleged drugs as the primary or confirmatory chemist.
A few hundred cases are left for re-prosecution. Prosecutors stated they decided to re-prosecute defendants with lengthy criminal histories. Of the cases that are being re-prosecuted, 112 cases are in Bristol County, 55 cases are in Essex County, 117 cases are being pursued in Suffolk County, 109 cases are in Middlesex County, 6 cases are in Norfolk County, 20 cases are in Plymouth County, and the Cape and Islands District Attorney will keep 1 case. Thus, about 90% of the implicated cases are being dismissed by the seven district attorney’s offices handling Dookhan’s cases. It is important to note that prosecutors likely will face a tough road to prove convictions handled by Dookhan, as they must prove a defendant’s guilt without evidence tainted by Dookhan.