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More Case Dismissals Sought Due To Amherst Drug Lab Scandal

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Don Treeger (The Republican) photo pool
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   The highest court in Massachusetts will hear arguments later this year on whether thousands more drug convictions should be thrown out because of scandal at an evidence testing lab in Amherst.

   Advocates want the Supreme Judicial Court to vacate convictions in all cases where drug samples were tested at the lab during the eight-year period when former chemist Sonja Farak worked there – not just the cases where she analyzed the alleged evidence.

   About 11,000 cases are at stake.

   In a brief filed with the court, the attorneys argue that Farak’s admission she stole drugs from the evidence safe for her personal use is proof of lax security that calls into question the integrity of all testing done at the lab.    The Massachusetts Attorney General’s office declined comment on the brief.

   Late last year, district attorneys moved to dismiss about 8,000 cases where Farak tested samples to be used as evidence.   The largest number of cases, by far, are in Hampden County, where District Attorney Anthony Gulluni said his office would act to vacate 4,000 convictions.

    "It is amazing the havoc that one person's misconduct and misdeeds can wreck on a system," said Gulluni. "What we have to focus on is making sure that everything we do as members of law enforcment and as prosecutors is above board."

    Farak was arrested in 2013 and later pleaded guilty to stealing drugs from the lab and evidence tampering.

    Prosecutors have resisted dismissing every single conviction that evidence tested by Farak had a hand in obtaining.  Gulluni said about 1,000 cases would be reviewed for possible retrials.

   " There are some very serious cases in the Superior Court where convictions occurred where we want to be very careful about making that decision,"  said Gulluni.

    Northwestern District Attorney Dave Sullivan, whose office moved to dismiss about 1,500 cases, said he’s confident no innocent person went to prison as a result of Farak’s misconduct.

   "Over ninety-nine percent were guilty pleas and in all our reviews we have not found any claims of actual innocence," said Sullivan.  " No one has any incarceration hanging over their head."

    The Committee for Public Council Services and the American Civil Liberties Union in arguing for all the cases to be dismissed point to alleged prosecutorial misconduct.  Two former assistant attorneys general were found by a judge to have withheld evidence of Farak’s drug use.

    Carl Williams, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Massachusetts, said tossing out all the cases is the only just thing to do.

     " We need to have some protections that scandals like this won't happen again," said Williams.

     Last year, almost 22,000 drug convictions were dismissed in a separate case of misconduct at a state drug lab in eastern Massachusetts.

    Former lab chemist Annie Dookhan admitted to falsifying test results in what authorities said was a misguided attempt to help law enforcement.

    Following the scandals, both labs operated by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health were shut down. Responsibility for testing evidence in drug cases was taken over by the State Police.

  

Paul Tuthill is WAMC’s Pioneer Valley Bureau Chief. He’s been covering news, everything from politics and government corruption to natural disasters and the arts, in western Massachusetts since 2007. Before joining WAMC, Paul was a reporter and anchor at WRKO in Boston. He was news director for more than a decade at WTAG in Worcester. Paul has won more than two dozen Associated Press Broadcast Awards. He won an Edward R. Murrow award for reporting on veterans’ healthcare for WAMC in 2011. Born and raised in western New York, Paul did his first radio reporting while he was a student at the University of Rochester.
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