Clean slate best reply to Farak failure
Sometimes there is such a grotesque failure of the justice system that a comprehensive remedy is the only way to right the scales.
The situation arising from a rogue chemist in the state lab in Amherst is such a failure. When the Supreme Judicial Court does something right to respond, it deserves to be acknowledged.
As recounted in its decision, a chemist, Sonja Farak, stole drugs submitted to the lab for testing for her own use, consumed drugs required for testing, and manipulated evidence and the lab’s computer system to conceal her actions. She did this over a four-year period without being detected. As a result, literally thousands of convictions were called into question.
The standard way to address a problem when evidence might be unreliable is on a case-by-case basis. Each defendant would have to come into court, demonstrate that his or her evidence was affected (or at least potentially affected), and convince the court that the problem was big enough to overturn the conviction. If this had occurred, there would have been thousands of hearings required across the commonwealth.
Given that number of cases and the profound failure of the state law enforcement system, the SJC simply ordered all the potentially affected cases dismissed. It made clear that it was not going to engage in any parsing of which chemist did which test, and dismissed cases even if they were not performed by Farak if they could have been affected.
Of course, that means that many individuals who were fully guilty are now free from their conviction. While Farak may have affected many tests, it is certain she did not affect most of the cases. Indeed, in many cases there might have been enough evidence even without the drug testing to support a conviction. But as recounted in the thoughtful (and lengthy) opinion, this was an extraordinary situation that required an extraordinary remedy.
In doing this, the SJC was quite correct. Sometimes the system of justice as a whole may require that individuals get an unwarranted benefit. The corruption at the heart of the Farak case went to the integrity of the system. Only a response that carved that cancer entirely out would be enough. So some — perhaps many — guilty go free to restore confidence in the criminal justice process.
Somewhat reluctantly, I must also commend Attorney General Maura Healey for not trying to duck responsibility or weasel out of her own office’s misconduct. In addition to the problems in the lab, several assistant attorneys general perpetrated a “fraud upon the court” by withholding exculpatory evidence and by providing deceptive answers to another judge to conceal their failure to make mandatory disclosure to criminal defendants. It would have been easy for her to try to distance herself or her office, but she did not do so and deserves some credit for that.
I hope that the SJC never again has to confront such a systematic perversion of the course of justice. It is good to know that when it does, it has the courage to do what is necessary.