Rollins Promises To Vacate More Convictions Because Of Mass. Drug Lab Scandal

Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins is vowing to vacate thousands more criminal convictions that were based on drug evidence tested at a now closed state laboratory.

In a motion agreeing to a new trial for a man whose 2009 conviction was based on evidence tested at the Hinton Drug Lab, Rollins outlined what she's calling the "Hinton Lab Initiative." The plan seeks to vacate convictions in Suffolk County where drug evidence was tested at the lab between May 2003 and August 2012. That was when former chemists Annie Dookhan and Sonja Farak worked at the lab.

Both women were convicted on charges of tampering with drug evidence they were supposed to be testing, although Farak's charges stem from her subsequent work at the state drug lab in Amherst, not her employment at the Hinton Lab. Tens of thousands of convictions have been vacated because of the chemists' misconduct.

“The time has come to fully address the impact of systemic misconduct in the Hinton Lab. In doing so, the Commonwealth embraces the high standard that our Constitution requires," the filing said. “The Commonwealth, therefore, intends to collaborate with the defense bar to identify a global resolution for any controlled substance conviction resulting from any analysis conducted at the Hinton Lab between May 1, 2003 and August 30, 2012.”

During that time, Rollins' office says the Hinton Lab certified almost 83,000 drug samples for evidence. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has already vacated 8,000 convictions based on that testing. The remaining 74,000 drug certifications will be reviewed by Rollins' office and could become part of a "global resolution" in which thousands more drug convictions could be erased.

“With this filing and the Hinton Lab Initiative, we are starting the hard work of instilling integrity back into an important part of the criminal legal system,’’ Rollins said in a statement. “After years of litigation, this is an important step toward restoring trust and faith in the criminal legal system. By working together with our courtroom partners, today we no longer rely on potentially falsified or fabricated evidence, and finally declare what we should have over a decade ago, that the abject and systemic mismanagement of the Hinton Lab has rendered anything produced there inherently suspect.”

Rollins' office says she will hold a summit with the defense bar next month to identify individual defendants and determine next steps. Once cases are vacated, the attorneys will work to expunge the records of those affected.

This is the third move by the Suffolk DA to deal with the fallout from the Hinton Lab. The SJC is reviewing a request made by Rollins last year to vacate some cases that were not included in the high court's initial ruling. The trial court is also reviewing a request from Rollins to vacate pleas from 64 people who pleaded guilty before the substances in evidence were tested. The tests later showed the substances were not illegal drugs.

Dookhan was convicted in 2013 on charges of not properly testing drug evidence at the Hinton Lab. She was released from prison in 2016.  In 2014, Farak was convicted of using drugs at the state lab in Amherst. Before Amherst, Farak had worked at the Hinton Lab from 2002-2004.  In 2017, a Superior Court judge said her drug abuse occurred at Hinton as well. The American Civil Liberties Union filed several lawsuits seeking to dismiss cases based on evidence tested by Dookhan and Farak.

“We applaud District Attorney Rachael Rollins for pledging to vacate Suffolk County drug convictions potentially impacted by Hinton Lab misconduct. We hope other district attorneys follow suit, allowing more people to move forward with their lives," said ACLU of Massachusetts Executive Director Carol Rose in an emailed statement."  The ACLU of Massachusetts stands ready to work with District Attorney Rollins — and any other interested district attorney — to make sure that this relief reaches affected people."

Defense attorneys praised the move and said they are willing to work with Rollins office. The state public defender agency, the Committee for Public Counsel Services, said Rollins' decision shows "compassion and leadership."

"We urge other district attorneys to follow DA Rollins’ leadership, do the right thing, and finally put an end to this dark moment in the Massachusetts criminal legal system," said CPCS Chief Counsel Anthony Benedetti.

The Massachusetts District Attorneys Association did not immediately comment.


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.