Massachusetts state court has been forced to vacate thousands of drug-related criminal convictions that were connected to a specific crime lab in Amherst, Massachusetts. The ruling was based on what the court called misconduct by a rogue chemist as well as two former prosecutors.
The recent ruling brings back into the headlines a series of very bad revelations and worse headlines for state law enforcement in Massachusetts. Chemist Sonja Farak pleaded guilty to “tampering with evidence” back in 2014 and was sentenced to 18 months in prison. Due to the conviction, prosecutors were forced to dismiss more than 11,000 cases based on drug tests conducted by Farak.
Now, civil rights advocates, attorneys, and even the state’s public defender’s office are all arguing that, because Farak had “unrestricted access” to the crime lab for a number of years, that another 8,000+ convictions should be reassessed, because they “could be tainted.”
The language in the court ruling has many arguing that these advocates have grounds to pursue their narrative. Justice Frank Gaziano said, “We conclude that Farak’s widespread evidence tampering has compromised the integrity of thousands of drug convictions apart from those that the Commonwealth has agreed should be vacated and dismissed…”
“Widespread evidence tampering.”
These are not words that any government or law enforcement official wants to see in the headlines once, much less twice. And that’s the place in which Massachusetts now find themselves. See, Farak was not the only chemist in the state convicted of “widespread evidence tampering.”
Like Farak, Annie Dookhan was convicted of tampering with drug samples, forcing prosecutors to toss out, to date, nearly 40,000 drug convictions… and there are others being considered. With both of these stories bring brought back to mind, the state faces a groundswell of protest and the likelihood that faith in the system will be significantly damaged.
Some are already saying that, if there were two, there may be more. Others are focusing on the ancillary facts about Farak’s case, the fact that she was actually stealing methamphetamine from the lab and using the drugs herself. Evidence suggests that Farak used meth, cocaine, ketamine, and LSD while working at the lab processing drug tests.
These revelations, especially coming so soon after the news about Dookhan, have shaken the public’s confidence in law enforcement at the most basic level. If there’s “this much” widespread evidence tampering, what else is happening, and who else is involved. Regardless of whether or not there is another tampering, defendants will be able to use this question to create doubt, and even law-abiding citizens are left wondering if they or their loved ones will be treated fairly. These are concerns public officials will need to address, strongly and demonstrably. Their message should be specific, unified, and confident. And it needs to be delivered very soon.