SJC: Gov't Can't Seek Higher Penalties For 'Dookhan Defendants' Affected By Tainted Drug Lab Evidence

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Annie Dookhan, in late 2012 (Steven Senne, Pool/AP)
Annie Dookhan, in late 2012 (Steven Senne, Pool/AP)

Defendants who were convicted with tainted evidence from the William Hinton State Drug Laboratory will be able to challenge their convictions or withdraw guilty pleas without fear of harsher sentences, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled Monday.

But justices on the court declined to grant another motion, by the American Civil Liberties Union, to vacate the sentences of all prisoners connected to the Annie Dookhan scandal at the drug lab.

Dookhan, a former chemist at the lab, is serving at least three years in prison after pleading guilty to faking test results in thousands of cases.

Since the crisis broke, Dookhan's actions have raised questions about the legitimacy of convictions.

Under the ruling by the SJC, prosecutors would be unable to seek new charges against defendants who file for a new trial, or even reintroduce charges that were dropped as part of a plea agreement. Doing so, the court wrote, would amount to "giving the Commonwealth a second bite at the proverbial apple in its efforts to convict the petitioners. Instead, the Commonwealth must be held to the terms of its plea agreements."

Matthew Segal, the legal director for the ACLU of Massachusetts, praised the decision.

"People were convicted in violation of due process," he said. "Their convictions were tainted, and they were too afraid to speak up about it in court."

On the subject of vacating all convictions touched by Dookhan, the court quoted a previous ruling, saying that, "while it certainly is true that we cannot expect defendants to bear the burden of a systemic lapse... we also cannot allow the misconduct of one person to dictate an abrupt retreat from the fundamentals of our criminal justice system."

In a statement, a spokesman for the Suffolk County district attorney's office called the decision "lopsided."

"The high court imposed what may amount to the same thing by substituting the Commonwealth’s statutory charging authority with their own," the statement said. "These convicted defendants now have nothing to lose and everything to gain by withdrawing their evidence-based admissions of guilt."

This article was originally published on May 18, 2015.

This segment aired on May 18, 2015.


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Jack Lepiarz Reporter and Anchor
Jack Lepiarz was a reporter and anchor at WBUR.



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