Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Caps Criminal Liability for Defendants Convicted in Drug Lab Scandal Cases

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court yesterday ruled that defendants who pleaded guilty to drug charges based on lab tests performed by disgraced former state chemist Annie Dookhan cannot face more serious charges or receive harsher prison sentences if they are successful in obtaining new trials.  The name of the case is Bridgeman v. District Attorney for the Suffolk District

Annie Dookhan was a chemist who worked in the William A. Hinton State Laboratory Institute for about 10 years.  In 2012, an investigation revealed serious problems with Dookhan’s work.  It was discovered that Dookhan claimed to have tested alleged narcotics when, in fact, no tests had been performed.  She also admitted that she intentionally contaminated some samples, which transformed non-narcotic substances into narcotics.  Dookhan also conceded that she forged log books and falsified reports.  As a result of Dookhan’s despicable misconduct, the governor closed the Hinton Lab and thousands of defendants who had been convicted of crimes were granted hearings to determine whether they were entitled to new trials.  Dookhan pleaded guilty to 27 criminal counts and was sentenced to serve 3-5 years in state prison.

In the latest case to reach the Supreme Judicial Court, the most important question was whether a defendant who wins a new trial because his guilty plea to drug charges was impacted by Dookhan’s misconduct would have the charges and sentence limited to the terms of the plea agreement.  When a defendant is charged with a serious drug offense such as trafficking, possession with intent to distribute, or a school zone violation, and the evidence is strong, the defense attorney and the prosecutor often negotiate a plea deal to limit the defendant’s exposure to prison time.  For example, the prosecutor might agree to reduce the charges to a lower level of trafficking (which is determined by the weight of the narcotic), or to dismiss a subsequent offender charge in exchange for the defendant agreeing to serve a certain sentence.  Defendants who pleaded guilty in Annie Dookhan cases were free to file motions to withdraw their guilty pleas.  However, many of those defendants feared that if they were allowed to withdraw their guilty pleas, the Commonwealth would then prosecute them for the more serious charges that had been dismissed or argue for a longer prison sentence.  Therefore, according to the defendants, the exercise of their postconviction rights is being chilled by the fear of retaliatory conduct by the prosecutor.

The Supreme Judicial Court pointed out that under ordinary circumstances, a defendant who withdraws his guilty plea may receive a harsher sentence than what was originally imposed.  However, as a result of Dookhan’s “egregious misconduct,” these defendants are in a different position.  The Court said it would be unfair for defendants to bear the burden of a “systemic lapse” that was completely attributable to the government.  Therefore, the Court ruled that the Commonwealth is prohibited from pursuing more serious charges or a more serious sentence than what was negotiated for purposes of the initial plea agreement.

This is absolutely the right decision by the Court.  Many of the defendants who pleaded guilty in Annie Dookhan cases have already served their entire prison sentences, and it would be entirely unjust for them to now face more serious charges or longer sentences.