from the wheels-of-justice-grind-slowly dept.
The Free Thought Project reports
After years of injustice, thousands of people wrongfully convicted on drug charges in Massachusetts will finally have their convictions overturned. The ruling centers on drug lab tests that were falsified by a state-employed chemist named Annie Dookhan.
"The state's highest court on Wednesday [January 18] ordered prosecutors to drop a large portion of the more than 24,000 drug convictions affected by the misconduct of former state drug lab chemist Annie Dookhan, issuing an urgent call to resolve a scandal that has plagued the legal system since 2012."
Dookhan was imprisoned in 2013 after being charged with a suite of crimes relating to her years-long career of deceit, where she falsified tens of thousands of reports to jail innocent people. She would mark results as "positive" for illegal substances without actually testing them, even adding cocaine to samples when no cocaine was present.
At [Dookhan's] sentencing, Judge Carol S. Ball stated, "Innocent persons were incarcerated, guilty persons have been released to further endanger the public, millions and millions of public dollars are being expended to deal with the chaos Ms. Dookhan created, and the integrity of the criminal justice system has been shaken to the core."
[...] The Massachusetts high court ruled that each [of 24,391 defendants] had a right to a hearing, but the cost and logistics of doing so would be unfeasible.
"The court said district attorneys across the state must "exercise their prosecutorial discretion and reduce the number of relevant Dookhan defendants by moving to vacate and dismiss with prejudice all drug cases the district attorneys would not or could not reprosecute if a new trial were ordered." The cases affected by the ruling include people who pleaded guilty, were convicted, or admitted that prosecutors had enough evidence to convict them. By vacating the cases, the convictions would effectively be erased...
The court said defendants whose cases aren't dismissed should receive a notice that their cases had been affected by Dookhan's misconduct. Then, any indigent defendants would receive public counsel to explore requests to vacate their pleas or get new trials.
Pro Publica and The New York Times Magazine have each written about field drug testing by U.S. law enforcement agencies. The tests are undertaken with disposable kits containing chemicals. A sample is brought into contact with the chemicals and there may be a colour change, which is assessed by the officer. The essay tells the story of people against whom criminal charges regarding illegal drugs were filed, with the results of these field testing kits as the primary evidence in the prosecutions.
According to the essay, the use of the kits has various pitfalls which can lead to false positive results. For one thing, analytes which are legal to possess can produce the same colour change as illegal substances. For another, poor lighting which may be encountered in the field can distort the officer's perception of colours. Confirmation bias can occur. Also, officers may receive inadequate (or--the submitter supposes--incorrect) training in the interpretation of the colours. A former Houston police chief offered the opinion that
Officers shouldn't collect and test their own evidence, period. I don't care whether that's cocaine, blood, hair.
The essay mentions gas chromatography–mass spectroscopy (GC-MS), an instrumental method which is typically undertaken in a laboratory, as providing more reliable results. The submitter notes that portable GC-MS equipment does exist (1, 2).
Nationwide, 62 percent of forensics labs do not conduct further testing in cases in which a field drug test was used and the defendant made a guilty plea. However, the Houston crime laboratory has been doing such testing. They have found that false positives are commonplace. The district attorney's office for Harris County, Texas, which handles cases from Houston, has been informed about those test results and is undertaking "efforts to overturn wrongful convictions." In three years, about as many such convictions have been overturned in Harris County as in the rest of the United States.
Annie Dookhan's falsification of drug lab tests has become a reason for over 21,000 people to celebrate. Massachusetts will drop 21,587 cases in the largest single dismissal of convictions in U.S. history:
Massachusetts formally dropped more than 21,000 tainted drug convictions Thursday that were linked to a disgraced state chemist who in 2013 admitted to faking test results.
It's the largest single dismissal of convictions in U.S. history, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
Thursday's dismissals by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court had been expected after several district attorneys on Tuesday submitted lists of 21,587 cases they said they would be unwilling or unable to prosecute, The Associated Press reports.