Massachusetts' highest court has outlined a procedure to address the thousands of criminal cases compromised by former state chemist Annie Dookhan. Both prosecutors and defense attorneys are claiming victory, despite a blistering dissent from one of the justices.
The 75-page Supreme Judicial Court ruling acknowledges that the extent of Dookhan's misconduct — which affected more than 20,000 criminal cases — leaves it with only "poor alternatives." The justices' plan calls on district attorneys to quickly review the affected cases and drop those that cannot be re-prosecuted.
"This is really a road map for the DAs to dismiss the vast majority of these cases," says Matt Segal, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts.
He calls the ruling a victory, even though the court rejected the ACLU request for a wholesale dismissal of the cases. Because he says the ruling is specific in how the cases are to be reviewed.
"It is a really stringent set of rules that the SJC has imposed here and our expectation is that these rules — and hopefully the responsible reaction of DAs is going to lead to thousands of tainted cases being dismissed," he says.
The ruling tells prosecutors to "exercise their discretion" and reduce the number of so-called relevant Dookhan defendants. It also requires DAs to make more effort to notify all of the defendants, as most are no longer in custody and most were charged with minor drug crimes.
Cape and Islands District Attorney Michael O'Keefe says that probably won't result in a huge dismissal of charges. And he says it's not much different from what the DAs have been doing since the drug lab scandal erupted in 2012.
"I'm pleased that the decision rejected these arguments that all of these cases had to be thrown out and discarded," O'Keefe says. "I think that was the wrong approach and I think the court recognized that."
Middlesex County District Attorney Marian Ryan says her office is already working on reviewing the affected cases and notifying defendants.
"We've already begun implementing that. They're reviewing the timelines and the protocol. The court has given us some clarity," Ryan says.
The ruling says the success of the procedure will depend on both prosecutors and defense attorneys, particularly public defenders.
Anthony Benedetti, chief counsel for the state's public defender agency, had expressed concerns about having enough resources to possibly re-litigate all the affected cases. But Benedetti says this ruling is a move in the right direction.
"We fully expect that the district attorneys will follow the mandate of the court and promptly dismiss a significant number of the 20,000 plus cases remaining. Then we'll be left with a more manageable number," he says.
Not everyone agrees with the ruling, including one of the justices. In a dissent, Justice Geraldine Hines wrote, "The time has come to close the book on this scandal, once and for all." She also said that in five years the courts have only managed to deal with 10 percent of the affected cases. In short, she said the court's solution is too little and too late.
Criminal defense lawyer Brad Bailey agrees with that dissent. He also predicts that this is the not the last legal battle over how to deal with the affected Dookhan cases.
"While I do agree that the SJC makes its best efforts to try to get this resolved, I think its a problem with such big parameters and so many moving parts that I can see this as the next phase of something that will continue to be addressed," Bailey says.
Prosecutors and defense attorneys meet with a single justice Monday to further discuss the procedure outlined in the ruling.
This segment aired on January 18, 2017.