It’s been nearly two months since news broke about chemist Annie Dookhan’s unprecedented, widespread mishandling of evidence at the now-closed Hinton State Lab. While numerous questions remain, one thing is for sure: In the fallout of the crisis, it’s not just Dookhan’s actions that are at stake for Massachusetts—but also millions of dollars in state funds, lab protocols, other personnel, thousands of cases, and the objectivity of Attorney General Martha Coakley’s investigation.Over 34,000 cases have been identified as involving possibly tainted drug samples handled by Dookhan -- meaning lots of wrongful convictions may have happened. Prof. Trounstine poses some good questions that move the conversation beyond the “why did she do it” and “whose case is affected” level.
1. Why is Massachusetts plowing ahead to potentially spend $100 million to re-prosecute thousands of cases—at least 34,000 drug samples were tainted—when drug prosecutions fail to reduce overall drug addiction or drug offenses?
• The so-called “war on drugs” has not reduced crime through prosecution and conviction of ordinary drug cases. Even Governor Deval Patrick said that “the warehousing of non-violent drug offenders has proven to be a costly failure.”
• In a letter dated October 11, 2012, to Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley, the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts (ACLUM) and Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) suggested that the state shouldn’t retry cases without a charge for a violent crime or a weapons offense, should dismiss all cases involving a police officer or prosecutor who at any time communicated directly with chemist Annie Dookhan, and should allow the release of prisoners who received a sentence based on Dookhan’s testing and have served more than half of their time. ...
4. Why does one gram of a drug make the difference between one sentence and another? Should weight equal culpability?This column from the Patriot-Ledger asks whether it would be fairer, cheaper, and more effective simply to dismiss categories of impacted drug cases, rather than do a lengthy and expensive case-by-case review to weed out the flawed convictions (if such weeding is even possible).
• Barbara Dougan, director of FAMM in Massachusetts, says that under drug sentencing laws in Massachusetts, the addict who agrees to do a favor for a dealer—give a ride, make a phone call—in order to earn a few bucks is prosecuted according to the weight of the drug, just like the dealer. According to Dougan, he or she can be subject to the same penalties as big time players “because our trafficking laws are based solely on the weight of the drugs involved and nothing else.”
It’s now time to face facts: Scrapping the case-by-case approach could save millions of dollars and restore faith in the justice system.
It has always been clear that the scandal imperils tens of thousands of drug cases. In early October, prosecutors estimated that a case-by-case response would cost $50 million over five years. Nevertheless, they forged ahead.
Even then, the case-by-case approach was puzzling. Re-prosecuting allegedly tainted cases might work for violent crimes, but for drug crimes it’s foolish. According to a Massachusetts Bar Association task force, drug cases have made “not a dent” in drug use.
So the ACLU of Massachusetts and Families Against Mandatory Minimums have asked prosecutors to abandon a case-by-case approach, and to instead dismiss broad categories of cases.
For example, we asked prosecutors to drop any case against a defendant who was not charged with violent crime or weapons offenses, and any case in which the defendant has served at least half of his sentence. The nonviolent cases are least likely to be worth litigating again because they were least likely to have been worth litigating in the first place. Defendants who have served substantial time based on Dookhan’s word, meanwhile, have suffered enough.
Dookhan worked in the Hinton (Jamaica Plain) drug lab from 2003 to 2011. The state has identified about 1,140 people who are currently serving drug sentences whose evidence was analyzed by Dookhan. Many of those have already been notified. However, if you have a loved one who may be affected, they can call the Committee for Public Counsel Services (the public defender’s office) at 1-800-882-2095 or 617-482-6212. FAMM can also send them a drug lab form to fill out and return to the public defender’s office. Contact our Massachusetts project director, Barb Dougan, at 617-543-0878 or firstname.lastname@example.org. For the prisoner’s own protection, the public defender asks that all inquiries and information come directly from the prisoner.