Thousands of drug cases to be dismissed by state DAs
Attorney General’s Office hid tainted evidence by drug lab chemist, said ACLU
Massachusetts district attorneys said last week that they would dismiss more than 6,000 drug convictions in counties across the state because of misconduct by former drug lab chemist Sonja Farak and two former state prosecutors who withheld evidence of Farak’s misdeeds.
Farak, who worked at the Amherst drug lab, pleaded guilty in 2014 to charges of stealing from the evidence locker to satisfy her own addiction, and the two state prosecutors, Anne Kaczmarek and Kris Foster, left their positions after a Springfield judge ruled in June that they had committed fraud.
The decision to dismiss the wrongful drug convictions occurred after the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts and the Committee for Public Counsel Services, with law firm Fick & Marx LLP, filed a petition urging the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court to dismiss every single case tainted by Farak.
“The attorney general’s office in any state should be a law firm for all the people,” said Matt Segal, legal director of the ACLU of Massachusetts in a morning press conference last Thursday.
“It hid exculpatory evidence from people, it deceived courts and DAs in their cases, and despite that, it has not agreed to dismiss a single case. That is shameful.”
He continued, “Although I’m proud of the advocacy that made today possible, it should not have been necessary. Prosecutors should always dismiss wrongful convictions, and not just when they get sued by CPCS, the ACLU, and Fick & Marx.”
This action follows a similar decision in April, when the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court issued an order to dismiss 21,839 drug convictions that had been tainted by former state chemist Annie Dookhan, an order the ACLU and CPCS also had a hand in petitioning.
Two of the Farak lawsuit plaintiffs, Herschelle Reaves and Nicole Westcott, provided statements at last week’s press conference, expressing the need for accountability in the mishandling of their cases.
“I turned my life around, despite — not because of — the way the state punished me for suffering from an addiction,” said Reaves in a written statement read at the press event by Carl Williams, staff attorney for ACLU of Massachusetts. “In 2014, at the very same time I was trying to turn my life around, the state was withholding evidence that could have helped me.”
Westcott, who was present at the press conference, said, “I just want them to be held accountable just as I was held accountable,” referring to Farak and the two former prosecutors who withheld evidence. Westcott has been sober for four years and is currently working to find housing and go back to school but is often impeded by her criminal record.
Williams told reporters, “If the Attorney General’s Office had disclosed that evidence in 2013, then people would have had a chance to challenge their convictions sooner.”
According to Williams, many of the convictions tainted by Farak were low-level, district court drug cases, including possession cases.
An equitable justice system
We will keep fighting until we have three things,” said Segal. “A justice system that does not tolerate wrongful convictions … a justice system that delivers clear, swift and tough consequences for neglecting to tell people they have been wrongfully convicted … and a justice system that reserves its harshest judgement not for poor people who have struggled with addiction like our clients, but instead for powerful people who commit misconduct.”
The Hampden County District Attorney’s Office agreed to dismiss nearly 4,000 convictions affected by Farak’s misconduct. Middlesex County will dismiss 245 cases, The Northwestern District Attorney’s Office will dismiss around 1,500 cases, Suffolk County will dismiss 134 cases and Worcester County will dismiss 241 cases, according to numbers provided at last week’s press conference.
In addition, according to a Boston Globe report, Essex County will dismiss all juvenile and district court cases, Plymouth County will dismiss approximately 100 cases, Bristol County will dismiss 203 cases and Norfolk County will dismiss 76 convictions.
Last week, Segal said that the ACLU was not aware of any point at which the Attorney General’s Office admitted that its employees committed misconduct, and his organization believes that the AGO will agree to dismiss zero cases.
However, in a statement emailed to the Boston Globe, a spokeswoman for current Attorney General Maura Healey said, “Staff in the AG’s office have been working hard for months to review databases, identify the Farak defendants, and secure their speedy relief. For the ACLU to suggest otherwise is false and irresponsible.”
Plaintiff Reaves said, in her written statement, “In my experience, persecution and punishment fix nothing. The war on drugs fixes nothing.”
Williams expressed a similar view.
“Putting people in prison for addiction does more harm than good in our society,” he said. “It is a waste of money and law enforcement resources.”