Annie Dookhan Debacle Continues to Cause Problems in Massachusetts Drug Prosecutions

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has once again waded into the mess caused by rogue chemist Annie Dookhan, but still did not implement a protocol that is likely to quickly fix the problems caused by her criminal conduct.  The Court’s most recent decision, delivered today, is Bridgeman v. District Attorney for the Suffolk District

Dookhan started working as a chemist analyzing purported drug samples at the Hinton Lab in Jamaica Plain in 2003.  Over time, supervisors became suspicious of her work and an investigation was commenced in 2011.  The state police assumed jurisdiction of the investigation in 2012 and discovered Dookhan had participated in widespread and serious misconduct, including: falsely stating she had tested substances when no tests had been conducted; intentionally contaminating substances (turning negative tests into positive tests); forging internal documents; and falsely claiming to have tested lab equipment before its use.  Dookhan’s crimes involved testing in more than 40,000 cases and resulted in defendants being wrongly convicted of crimes and serving prison sentences the were undeserved.  Dookhan was ultimately indicted by a grand jury, which charged her with multiple counts of obstruction of justice, evidence tampering, perjury, and falsely claiming to have earned a graduate degree.  She pled guilty to the indictments in 2013 and was sentenced to serve 3-5 years in state prison.  She has since been released, but the damage she inflicted on the judicial system lives on.

To their credit, the executive and judicial branches of government attempted to fix the problem by assigning a team of retired superior court judges to consider whether defendants who were convicted of drug crimes involving Dookhan were entitled to new trials.  Hearings were held every day to attempt to identify those defendants who were actually prejudiced by Dookhan’s misconduct (which is harder than it sounds, because Dookhan’s involvement in some cases was more significant than in others).  After it became clear that the manpower in reviewing all of the Dookhan cases would be monumental, the Committee for Public Counsel Services (CPCS for short – this is the agency that assigns public defenders to indigent defendants) asked the Supreme Judicial Court to impose a global remedy that would vacate the convictions of all defendants whose cases had been touched by Dookhan.  The SJC declined to adopt the global remedy in 2015, and in this case CPCS was renewing its call for the global remedy to be imposed.  Instead, the Court put in place a new protocol involving three phases: (1) the district attorneys are ordered to exercise their prosecutorial discretion and reduce the Dookhan defendants by vacating and dismissing those cases they would be unable to reprosecute if the cases were to be dismissed; (2) the remaining Dookhan defendants will be notified that their cases were not voluntarily vacated and dismissed by their respective district attorney; and (3) CPCS will appoint new attorneys to all defendants who want to explore filing motions to vacate their convictions.  The Court acknowledged the new protocol will “substantially burden” prosecutors, defense attorneys, and judges and will be “challenging” to implement.  However, the Court continues to insist it is the most just manner by which to resolve a problem caused by unprecedented criminal conduct.

In a concurring opinion, two justices expressed concern that fewer than 10% of Dookhan cases have been litigated.  And in a persuasive dissent, Justice Hines argued “[t]he time has come to close the book on this scandal, once and for all, by adopting a global remedy.”  Justice Hines is right.  These problems were intentionally caused by a state employee.  It is too time-consuming and too expensive to sift through the cases one by one.  The Court should dismiss all the Dookhan cases once and for all.