If everything keeps falling apart in Massachusetts, there won’t be a drug conviction left in the state. The eventual fallout from the 2012 conviction of drug lab technician Annie Dookhan was the reversal of nearly 21,000 drug convictions. Dookhan was an efficient drug lab worker — so efficient she often never performed the tests she was required to. The state moved much slower, dragging its feet notifying those possibly affected by Dookhan’s lab misconduct until a judge told it to stop screwing around. There still could be more reversed convictions on the way as the state continues to make its way through a 40,000-case backlog.
Those numbers alone are breathtaking. But there are even more conviction dismissals on the way. Another drug lab technician convicted for stealing samples to feed her own drug habit has tainted thousands of additional drug prosecutions. A judicial order related to her questionable drug tests is erasing a whole bunch of prosecutorial wins.
The Committee for Public Counsel Services (CPCS) and the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) of Massachusetts said Thursday an estimated 11,162 convictions in 7,690 cases tainted by former state drug lab chemist Sonja Farak were ordered for dismissal by Supreme Judicial Court Associate Justice Frank Gaziano.
Farak apparently used whatever drugs she came across during her decade-plus with the Amherst, MA drug lab. This lab was inspected in 2012 by state police, shortly after the Boston lab was shut down following the discovery of Annie Dookhan’s misconduct. This apparently cursory inspection turned up nothing, and the police who can smell drugs the moment they pull over a car apparently couldn’t tell Farak had smoked crack just prior to her interview with state police inspectors. Her misconduct wasn’t discovered until 2013 — nearly eight years after Farak began using drug lab drugs regularly.
By 2010, Farak was snorting, smoking and swallowing not only the lab “standards” but also the police-submitted evidence, frequently siphoning from the powder cocaine. In one case in 2012, where police in Chicopee, Mass., had seized a kilo of cocaine, Farak “took approximately 100 grams from the same and used it to manufacture base cocaine” — crack — “at the Amherst Lab.” She also began seeking treatment for her addictions, the report states, creating another source of records about her drug use. Soon she began stealing from her co-workers’ samples as well, and manipulating the computer databases so that wasn’t noticed. Finally, a colleague looking for some of Farak’s lab samples found they had been tampered with, and she happened to get caught in January 2013.
Once this was uncovered, the state attorney general’s office released a regrettable statement claiming Farak’s eight years of drug use wouldn’t “undermine any cases. Three years later, a full report showed Farak’s abuse of her position affected nearly 8,000 cases. It also uncovered a complete lack of standards in the Amherst lab. According to the AG report [PDF], lab security was almost nonexistent. The running of “blanks” through testing equipment (to clear residue from previous drug tests) was supposed to happen after every test to avoid tainting new tests with previously-tested substances. In reality, this only happened “every 5 to 10” tests and was wholly at the tester’s discretion.
The exposure of additional drug lab misconduct is more than concerning. It’s terrifying. Based on results from labs subject to minimal standards, security precautions, and state oversight, people were being incarcerated. Drug sentences are notoriously harsh. Stealing from people is treated as a less severe violation than selling someone drugs they want to purchase. So is rape, assault, and a number of other crimes where no consensual transaction takes place. And yet, the evidence in these cases — the ones capable of delivering 25-year-minimums and life sentence-equivalents — is treated carelessly by the labs testing substances and the government overseeing them.