SJC approves disbarment of prosecutor for handling of drug lab case

Massachusetts' highest court has taken the unusual step of upholding the proposed disbarment of a former prosecutor, capping what's likely the final chapter in a decade-long fight over the handling of a state drug lab scandal.

The State Supreme Judicial Court in a ruling Thursday said former Assistant Attorney General Anne Kaczmarek should be disbarred because she was "most culpable" for the office's failure to turn over all exculpatory information, and because she displayed "a lack of candor and remorse" at a disciplinary hearing in the case.

Two other prosecutors involved in the government's case against former state chemist Sonja Farak also stood accused of withholding evidence that could have helped defendants in other cases. In 2014, Farak was convicted of personally using many of the drug samples she was supposed to be testing as evidence at the state crime lab in Amherst. Tens of thousands of criminal cases were dismissed because of Farak's actions.

Kaczmarek was the lead prosecutor in the case against Farak.

"As a result of Kaczmarek's intentional and egregious misconduct, the due process rights of thousands of criminal defendants were violated for a prolonged period," the SJC ruling said.

John Verner was a supervisor in the AG’s office and Kris Foster was a junior attorney; all three worked under then-state Attorney General Martha Coakley.

"The record supports a finding that the prosecutors failed in their collective duty to disclose potentially exculpatory information" that was known to the Attorney General's Office, said the ruling written by Justice Frank Gaziano.

The high court said Kaczmarek should be disbarred for not revealing the scope of Farak's drug use and that it went on longer than the attorney general's office initially acknowledged, potentially compromising even more criminal cases.

The Board of Bar Overseers disciplines attorneys in Massachusetts. Their recommendations in this case followed weeks of disciplinary hearings in 2020 overseen by a special hearing officer appointed by the Board. The high court must then approve serious proposed discipline of lawyers. The court's order takes effect in 30 days.

Verner and Foster received lesser punishments than Kaczmarek. The high court upheld the Board of Bar Overseers' one-year-and-a-day recommended suspension for Foster. But it did not approve a proposed 3-month suspension for Verner. The SJC said he should receive only a public reprimand.

Kaczmarek's attorney, Tom Kiley, said Thursday he had not had a chance to go through the 83-page ruling. When the SJC heard the case in April, Kiley had argued that Kaczmarek was following office policy at the time and believed that the potentially exculpatory evidence had been turned over to district attorneys.

Foster can apply for a reinstatement of her law license after the suspension. She is currently general counsel for the state Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission. The commission did not respond to a request for comment.

"Because Foster was reckless in her representations about what the AGO had disclosed, and otherwise exhibited incompetence in her response to the subpoena and discovery motions, we accept the board's recommendation that she receive a suspension," the ruling said.

Verner is now a prosecutor with the Suffolk County District Attorney's Office. A spokesman for the DA referred questions to Verner's attorney, who said it was the right decision.

"We are pleased that the SJC agreed with John’s position that a public reprimand was appropriate," attorney Patrick Hanley said in an emailed statement.

The SJC said it did not approve the stronger punishment for Verner because he "reasonably relied in good faith on Kaczmarek's misrepresentations that she had turned over exculpatory information, and his liability is limited to failing to follow up with her as to whether she had disclosed all such information."

The approval of the disbarment of a prosecutor is considered unprecedented in Massachusetts, with few similar cases on which the SJC could base a decision. The ruling said "we have come across none that is comparable to the facts we have here."

Former First Assistant Bar Counsel Nancy Kaufman said it's also been unusual outside of Massachusetts, until recently. "That has been a very rare occurrence all the way across the country until recent years," Kaufman said. "Prosecutors were usually not held accountable for this kind of violation of their constitutional obligations and the rules of professional conduct."

At the center of the case against the three prosecutors were so-called "mental health worksheets." Police found documents in Farak's car after her 2013 arrest where she chronicled her drug use in the Amherst lab. The worksheets documented her drug use well before the attorney general's office said it had occurred. The worksheets were eventually discovered by defense attorney Luke Ryan, who represented several clients convicted of drug crimes based on evidence Farak had tested.

"The real hope here is that decisions like this will send a clear message that prosecutors have an ethical and constitutional duty to disclose evidence that's exculpatory to the people that are charged with crimes and that the failure to do so can carry significant consequences," Ryan said.

The SJC is familiar with the years-long case, which has been costly and has upended the state's criminal legal system. The high court dismissed thousands of affected cases.

“Millions of taxpayer dollars have been spent trying to wade through the drug lab scandal, and confidence in the legal system has been shaken," said Anthony Benedetti, chief counsel for the Committee for Public Counsel Services. "Work continues years later to address the full extent of the damage this scandal has done."

Farak was convicted shortly after another state drug lab scandal at the Hinton Drug Lab in Jamaica Plain. Former chemist Annie Dookhan was convicted of falsifying drug testing in 2013. Tens of thousands of criminal cases were dismissed because of her misconduct as well. Legal analysts have described the cases as the largest drug lab scandals in U.S. history.

This article was originally published on August 31, 2023.


Deborah Becker 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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