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Judge's Ruling Linked To Disgraced Chemist May Pave Way To Reopen Thousands Of Mass. Cases

Sonja Farak stands during her 2013 arraignment at Eastern Hampshire District Court in Belchertown. (Don Treeger/The Republican via AP, Pool, File)
Sonja Farak stands during her 2013 arraignment at Eastern Hampshire District Court in Belchertown. (Don Treeger/The Republican via AP, Pool, File)

A superior court judge has ordered a new trial for a man convicted of heroin possession in 2006. That ruling — based on the judge's assertion that Massachusetts did not adequately investigate one of its highest-profile drug lab scandals — could potentially pave the way for appeals in thousands of other cases in the state.

Last week, Middlesex Superior Court Judge Michael Ricciuti ordered a new trial for Eugene Sutton. The order came on the heels of an April ruling in which Ricciuti wrote that "justice was not done in this case."

The appeal focused on disgraced chemist Sonja Farak's time working at the state's Hinton State Laboratory in Boston. It questioned whether the state had done enough to examine her work there between 2003 to 2005 after it was revealed, about a decade later, she had repeatedly used drugs at a state-run lab in western Massachusetts.

In 2014, Farak was convicted on drug charges after admitting to ingesting drugs she was supposed to be testing at the state-run lab in Amherst. The state dismissed thousands of cases she handled at that particular lab in the wake of her misconduct.

Jim McKenna, an attorney for Sutton, argued the state did not properly investigate Farak's work at Hinton.

Ricciuti's latest ruling confirmed that Sutton's conviction is vacated, making him eligible for a new trial. The commonwealth did not object, but the Middlesex district attorney's office did not say if it will pursue a new trial.

McKenna said there are likely thousands more that were affected by Farak's work in Boston.

"Farak tested more than 9,000 samples when she worked in Boston," Mckenna said. "So the same argument brought in my client's case could be brought in the case of each of the people who were convicted based on evidence entrusted to Sonja Farak at that lab."

Last year, State Supreme Judicial Court Associate Justice Scott Kafker agreed with a lower court ruling stating that Farak’s Boston work should have been reviewed. Other judges also questioned the scope of the state’s drug lab investigation.

The Massachusetts Office of the Inspector General said it conducted a review, but has provided conflicting statements about its reach. In one court filing, the office said it had not conducted a thorough review of Farak or other chemists at the Hinton Lab.

McKenna said the government failed to act.

"The majority of those convicted are from minority communities," McKenna said. "I don't think it's a coincidence that there has been no real investigation as to whether these convictions are valid. I don't think this would have happened if the defendants were white and suburban."

Farak pleaded guilty to tampering with evidence and other drug charges and was sentenced to 18 months in jail. Her conviction followed another drug lab scandal at the Hinton Lab involving former chemist Annie Dookhan. In 2013, Dookhan was convicted of tampering with drug evidence. She was released from prison in 2016.

Deborah Becker Twitter Host/Reporter
Deborah Becker is a senior correspondent and host at WBUR. Her reporting focuses on mental health, criminal justice and education.

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