Convictions dismissed in tainted drug cases
Court sides with Public Counsel
The state’s highest court has ordered thousands of drug convictions that hinged on drug tests at a state lab to be dismissed due to “intentional” and “egregious” misconduct by one of the lab’s chemists and two former assistant attorneys general.
The Supreme Judicial Court’s unanimous ruling affects all convictions based on evidence tested at the Amherst lab from Jan. 1, 2009, to Jan. 18, 2013, when former state chemist Sonja Farak was arrested, as well as all methamphetamine convictions based on drugs tested during her nine-year tenure.
Justice Frank M. Gaziano, writing for the court, said Farak tampered with drug evidence to satisfy her addiction, and two former assistants to then-Attorney General Martha Coakley — Anne Kaczmarek and Kris Foster — failed to reveal what they learned about the chemist.
In 2014, Farak was sentenced to 18 months in jail after she pleaded guilty to tampering with evidence. Kaczmarek and Foster no longer work for the attorney general’s office.
Earlier this year, 11 district attorneys agreed to vacate all the cases in which Farak personally had analyzed evidence, but they said there was no need to dismiss more than those 11,000. The Committee for Public Counsel Services and civil rights advocates sued, arguing that another 8,000 convictions should be vacated due to Farak’s unfettered access to the lab.
Gaziano agreed with the petitioners that the government misconduct was “so intentional and so egregious” that the “very strong medicine of dismissal with prejudice is required,” meaning the cases cannot be retried.
“Absent a protective order,” Gaziano said, “no prosecutor, whether in the office of the attorney general or in the office of a district attorney, has the authority to decline to disclose exculpatory information.”
The convictions’ dismissals are necessary, he added, both “to protect the integrity of the criminal justice system and to afford relief to defendants whose convictions may have rested upon tampered evidence.”
Anthony Benedetti, chief counsel of the Committee for Public Counsel Services, the statewide public defender office, said the court’s decision will “not only deliver justice to thousands of our clients who were wrongfully convicted, but ... also sends a clear message that misconduct by the prosecution will not be tolerated in Massachusetts.”
In a statement yesterday, Emalie Gainey, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Maura Healey, said: “We are grateful to the court for its thoughtful opinion and its commitment to justice for the Farak defendants. We share that commitment and welcome the role the court has given our office to help facilitate notice to impacted defendants and secure comprehensive and speedy relief. AG Healey and her administration are fully committed to ensuring that the mistakes of the past never happen again.”
OVERTURNED: Sonja Farak, seen at her 2013 arraignment on charges that she stole drugs while working at a state crime lab, led the Supreme Judicial Court to throw out all convictions based on evidence processed at the Amherst lab where she worked.