Massachusetts top court rules in tainted drug evidence case

May 18, 2015, 10:02 AM

BOSTON (AP) — Thousands of defendants convicted of drug crimes after a chemist in a state lab tampered with evidence can’t be charged with more serious crimes or given harsher sentences if granted a new trial, Massachusetts’ highest court ruled Monday.

But the Supreme Judicial Court stopped short of ordering the affected convictions vacated, which had been sought by the Committee for Public Counsel Services, which oversees public defenders in Massachusetts.

The state drug lab scandal erupted when chemist Annie Dookhan admitted tampering with evidence at the William A. Hinton State Laboratory Institute in Boston, forcing the lab to close in 2012. Dookhan was sentenced in 2013 to at least three years in prison.

“Since the revelation of Dookhan’s egregious misconduct at the Hinton drug lab — a lapse of widespread magnitude in the criminal justice system — we have found it necessary to exercise our general superintendence power to ameliorate its damaging effects,” the justices wrote.

Matt Segal, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, who argued the case before the court in January, called the ruling an “enormous victory” for due process.

“It’s through and through a victory,” he said Monday. “The most important thing was that these defendants now have a real and meaningful opportunity to challenge those convictions in court.”

The state Bar Association also applauded the ruling, which essentially caps a defendant’s punishment at what it was under the original plea deal with prosecutors. “To find otherwise would have put a chilling effect on our justice system,” Martin Healy, the association’s chief operating officer, said in a statement.

The ACLU and the Committee for Public Counsel Services had argued that the high court needed to take special measures to address criminal cases affected by Dookhan’s misconduct.

They said many defendants feared seeking a new trial because, under state law, they could be prosecuted for crimes that had been dropped.

But lawyers for the district attorney’s offices in Suffolk and Essex counties opposed the ACLU’s request, disputing the argument that prosecutors would seek to “punish” defendants who seek new trials by seeking harsher sentences.

The justices deemed that exposing the defendants to their original, pre-plea deal charges would be inappropriate, given the circumstances.

“Were it not for Dookhan’s actions, defendants would not be in the position of having to seek postconviction relief from her malfeasance in the first instance,” the justices wrote.

Segal, of the ACLU, says the decision is significant because the majority of defendants have already completed their prison sentences. A number would now likely seek to have their cases retried to clear their criminal record, he said.

“That’s why this fear was so acute for them,” Segal said. “They’re trying to move on with their lives and they were being told, until today, that if you tried to seek a new trial, you could actually be sent back to prison.”

The ACLU has estimated over 40,000 convictions are linked with the drug lab scandal. Prosecutors have suggested the number that would ultimately seek to have their convictions overturned is far lower, however.

The case — Kevin Bridgeman v. District Attorney for the Suffolk District — centered on three men who had pleaded guilty to drug-related charges based on evidence tested and potentially tainted by Dookhan.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

United States News

FILE - In this undated photo from an unknown location, the leader of Taliban fighters, Mullah Haiba...
Associated Press

Taliban leader: Afghan soil won’t be used to launch attacks

ISLAMABAD (AP) — Taliban supreme leader Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada said Wednesday that Afghan soil will not be used to launch attacks against other countries, and he asked the international community to not interfere in Afghanistan’s internal affairs. The Taliban say they are adhering to an agreement they signed with the United States in 2020 — […]
5 hours ago
FILE - People build a model of the business tower Lakhta Centre, at the headquarters of Russian gas...
Associated Press

EXPLAINER: Fears of a natural gas emergency stalk Europe

It’s not a summer heat wave that’s making European leaders and businesses sweat. It’s fear that Russia’s manipulation of natural gas supplies will lead to an economic and political crisis next winter. Or, in the worst case, even sooner if Russia suddenly cuts off the gas. Here are key things to know about the energy […]
5 hours ago
FILE - In this image made from video, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian gestures du...
Associated Press

Ahead of G-20 ministers’ meeting, China slams US, NATO

BEIJING (AP) — China launched a scathing attack on the U.S. and NATO on Wednesday, days before a meeting between U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi. Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian’s comments underscore the increasingly fractious relationship, along with China’s increasingly confrontational approach to foreign relations that heatedly rejects […]
5 hours ago
A drone flies at one of the Federal Aviation Administration's designated drone testing sites run by...
Associated Press

The next frontier for drones: letting them fly out of sight

REMINGTON, Va. (AP) — For years, there’s been a cardinal rule for flying civilian drones: Keep them within your line of sight. Not just because it’s a good idea — it’s also the law. But some drones have recently gotten permission to soar out of their pilots’ sight. They can now inspect high-voltage power lines […]
5 hours ago
People wearing face masks walk past a bank's electronic board showing the Hong Kong share index in ...
Associated Press

Global benchmarks mixed as euro hovers at 20-year low to USD

TOKYO (AP) — Global shares were mixed Wednesday as European benchmarks rose in early trading despite looming worries about a global recession that have pushed the euro to a 20-year low against the U.S. dollar. Asian markets finished mostly lower. Oil prices recouped some lost ground. Analysts said markets were focusing on a variety of […]
1 day ago
FILE - Cynthia Moreno, 32, hangs a sign across the street from an U.S. Immigration and Customs Enfo...
Associated Press

Appeals arguments set on immigrants brought to US as kids

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Immigrant advocates head to a federal appeals court in New Orleans on Wednesday in hopes of saving an Obama-era program that prevents the deportation of thousands of people brought into the U.S. as children. A federal judge in Texas last year declared the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program illegal — […]
1 day ago

Sponsored Articles

Dr. Richard Carmona

Great news: Children under 5 can now get COVID-19 vaccine

After more than two years of battle with an invisible killer, we can now vaccinate the youngest among us against COVID-19. This is great news.
Day & Night Air Conditioning, Heating and Plumbing

Most plumbing problems can be fixed with regular maintenance

Instead of waiting for a problem to happen, experts suggest getting a head start on your plumbing maintenance.
Christina O’Haver

BE FAST to spot a stroke

Every 40 seconds—that’s how often someone has a stroke in the United States. It’s the fifth leading cause of death among Americans, with someone dying of a stroke every 3.5 minutes.
Massachusetts top court rules in tainted drug evidence case