Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Hears New Case Regarding the Annie Dookhan Scandal

The fallout from the Annie Dookhan scandal continued today, as the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court considered the rights of defendants who are successful in withdrawing their original guilty pleas.  The name of the case is Bridgeman v. District Attorney for Suffolk County.

Thousands of defendants who were charged in Massachusetts with drug crimes had their drugs tested by Annie Dookhan, who was a state-employed chemist at the Hinton Laboratory in Jamaica Plain from 2003 until 2012.     An investigation revealed that Dookhan had filed false drug test results, mixed drug samples, and lied under oath about her job qualifications.  She was fired and indicted by a grand jury for charges including misleading investigators and tampering with evidence.  In November of 2013, she pleaded guilty in Suffolk Superior Court and was sentenced to serve three to five years in state prison, followed by two years of probation.

The scandal rocked the criminal justice system, with tens of thousands of criminal convictions possibly tainted by Dookhan’s misconduct.  Criminal defendants began filing motions to withdraw their guilty pleas and special superior court sessions were created to address cases where Dookhan was involved in the testing of the drugs.  The state has spent millions of dollars to address all of the Dookhan cases.

Today’s hearing in the SJC dealt with whether defendants who were permitted to withdraw their guilty pleas should be exposed to more serious charges than those to which they pleaded guilty.  In many drug cases, defendants receive consideration for pleading guilty in the form of the reduction of charges.  For example, a defendant might be charged with trafficking more than 200 grams of cocaine, which carries a mandatory minimum state prison sentence of 12 years.  If the defendant wants to plead guilty, the prosecutor might agree to reduce the charge to trafficking more than 100 grams of cocaine, which carries a shorter mandatory minimum sentence of 8 years in state prison (thereby saving the defendant 4 years in prison).  In that scenario, what should happen if a defendant pleaded guilty to trafficking more than 100 grams of cocaine and received 8 years in prison, only to find out that Dookhan was the chemist who tested his drugs?  If he files a motion to withdraw his guilty plea, the original charge (trafficking over 200 grams of cocaine, carrying 12 years in prison) is reinstated, and the defendant might be subject to additional punishment if the prosecutor can still prove its case.  In today’s hearing, the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts joined the state public defender agency in asking the Supreme Judicial Court to cap a defendant’s liability to the charges (and punishment) he received as a result of the plea deal.

The petitioners’ attorneys argued that defendants are scared to file motions to withdraw their pleas because they worry that the Commonwealth will seek to punish them by reinstating the original (more serious) charges.  In some cases, the defendants have already served their entire prison sentences and do not want to risk returning to prison if they do not receive the same sentence after withdrawing their plea.  Chief Justice Ralph Gants pointed out that in these types of cases, the Supreme Judicial Court has already found “egregious government misconduct” and questioned why it was fair to allow the prosecutor to ask for a harsher penalty when the prosecutor already received what he believed was a fair sentence for the underlying crime.  Justice Margot Botsford asked the prosecutor why an additional sentence should be imposed “on the back of the defendant.”  The prosecutor’s argument was that the defendant would be in an identical position as before he pleaded guilty, and therefore it would be inappropriate to disallow the Commonwealth to seek whatever penalty is allowed by the law.

The Court took the matter under advisement and will issue a ruling in several months.