Clean slate best re­ply to Farak fail­ure

Boston Herald - - NEWS -

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.

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