Amherst Drug Lab Dismissals Carry Philosophical And Practical Challenges

Oct 15, 2018

The fallout from a scandal involving the state drug lab in Amherst, Massachusetts, may be nearing an end, but not before even more affected cases are identified.

The Supreme Judicial Court ruled last week that all drug cases with evidence tested at the Amherst lab over a four-year period would be dismissed, along with every methamphetamine cases going back a few more years. Previously, only samples that former drug-addicted chemist Sonja Farak handled were dismissed.

The single largest county affected by the ruling is Hampden County, according to Matt Segal of the ACLU of Massachusetts. We asked him to talk about the overall magnitude of the decision.

Matt Segal, ACLU of Massachusetts: It is likely to be a very large number of cases overall, and that's partly because of the court's decision -- extending the dismissals even to cases that weren't assigned to Sonja Farak.

There was already an understanding, even before this decision, that every case where Farak was assigned as the chemist would also be dismissed. Those cases span not just the four years where everyone at the lab is getting relief, but also additional years -- about eight years total.

Carrie Healy, NEPR: What does it mean for someone to have a crime that had been tested through this drug lab get it dismissed, and essentially erased from their background? 

Let me answer that in two ways. There may be some people right now who are serving sentences on convictions that are now overturned because of this decision, or who are serving sentences that have been enhanced because of prior convictions that are now overturned.

We're hoping to be able to find those people, so that their sentences can be changed, and if appropriate, they can be released.

But I think the broader issue is -- and the reason why the ACLU and public defenders have really been focused on this problem -- is that from the beginning to end, the war on drugs in Massachusetts has been so misguided. It's been built on falsified evidence. It's been built on going after largely poor folks, who are suffering from addiction. And it hasn't gotten us anywhere in terms of battling the problem of addiction.

At the center of this issue is the prosecutorial withholding of evidence, and the whole dismissal hinges on that fact. Many have said that it will set a precedent. But will that actually change the way prosecutors operate in the future?

Prosecutorial misconduct is a big problem, in part, because it's so rare to see any consequences for it.

The entire justice system is built on the idea that if you punish poor people enough for their misdeeds, that they will change their ways. And yet, when powerful people in the criminal justice system misbehave, as prosecutors did in this case -- and really in thousands of cases, as a consequence -- there are so rarely any consequences for that. And that's just not right.

So what we hope that this case will do is set a precedent that will start creating some meaningful consequences for prosecutorial misconduct.

The consequences here are: the court is dismissing convictions.

The court is going to take a look at its criminal procedure rules, to try to revise them, to bring home to prosecutors how important it is to do the right thing, and turn over evidence that needs to be turned over.

And finally, the court -- as a monetary sanction against the Attorney General's office -- is requiring that office to pay for the notice that needs to go out to these thousands of wrongfully-convicted people.

How long is this process expected to take?

We're going to work as quickly as possible. One step is to identify the new cases that need to be dismissed, and then to move forward with getting those cases off people's records, and sending letters to folks, and letting them know what happened.

Telling the truth to people who are wrongfully convicted is a huge problem here. We've been saying for years that this misconduct occurred that it wasn't just Farak; it was also prosecutors who misbehaved, and the thousands of people who were wrongfully convicted deserve to know the truth.

It just seems like it's going to be such a paperwork nightmare. Is there enough staff to do this at this point?

I wish. I think it's been a struggle for us. We've partnered with law firms and with the public defenders and also the DAs and AG. We're just a little nonprofit who've been trying to do the work of identifying people.

There's even more of it to do as a result of this decision than there was over the last few months. And the good news is: it's to try to help people. So we'll get on it.