A decade-old scandal at a Massachusetts crime lab that led authorities to dismiss tens of thousands of drug convictions may involve wrongdoing by more people than previously known, according to a recent court order.
A state Superior Court judge said in a ruling related to the release of a trove of state research materials that there is evidence that other employees at the William A. Hinton State Laboratory Institute, beyond disgraced former chemist Annie Dookhan, they may have engaged in misconduct. At least one person was referred to the state attorney general’s office in 2015 for possible prosecution, Judge John T. Lu wrote last week.
The ruling Stokes harbors doubts about statements by the state inspector general’s office over the past eight years that Dookhan was the “only bad actorin Hinton’s lab. And that means the big scandal could grow.
“This is a significant development. It rightly raises questions about the criminal convictions the lab helped produce with or without Annie Dookhan’s involvement,” said Matthew Segal, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, who has led the defense attorneys’ fight. to uncover massive misconduct at a pair of government-run Massachusetts labs that led the state’s highest court to dismiss 61,000 drug charges.
Dookhan’s misconduct at Hinton’s lab was exposed in 2012, after he had worked there for nearly a decade. She admitted to tampering with evidence, falsifying test results and lying about it, according to court records. She served three years in prison and was released in 2016. Most of the people she helped convict of misdemeanor drug offenses pleaded guilty and finished their sentences long before she was prosecuted, according to defense attorneys. More than 21,000 cases she worked on have been dismissed.
Lu’s Sept. 16 ruling relates to cases in Middlesex County in which defendants are challenging drug convictions based on evidence that defense attorneys say was processed in Hinton’s lab, not by Dookhan. , but by other chemists, including Sonja Farak.
Farak worked in Hinton’s lab from 2002 to August 2004 before moving to a state lab in Amherst, where he fueled his drug addiction by using samples he was supposed to test in criminal cases, according to court records. She pleaded guilty in 2014 to evidence tampering and drug theft charges and was sentenced to 18 months in jail. More than 16,000 cases she worked on have been dismissed.
Farak has not been charged with any crime in connection with his work at Hinton.
Farak and Dookhan could not be immediately reached for comment.
The Middlesex County defendants are challenging their convictions, saying the state failed to specifically investigate Farak and other chemists while they worked at Hinton.
“We have to get to the bottom of what happened at Hinton,” said James P. McKenna, who represents two of the Middlesex defendants convicted on evidence proven by chemists other than Dookhan.
Former Massachusetts Inspector General Glenn A. Cunha, who retired this year, said in 2019 that his office never specifically investigated Farak’s work in Hinton. Cunha declined to comment on pending litigation.
Dookhan and Farak’s misconduct and its aftermath have been a persistent embarrassment to the state and have turned its criminal justice system upside down. now closed Hinton when Dookhan, Farak and other chemists worked there.
Thousands of wrongfully convicted people went to prison or jail or lost their jobs, homes and parental rights, according to defense attorneys.
In June, the state agreed to pay up to $14 million to settle a class action lawsuit to reimburse more than 30,000 defendants wrongfully convicted for the fines and fees they paid to the state in trials based on problematic crime lab evidence. The state has also spent more than $30 million on other costs related to investigating and addressing the damage from the scandal.
Lu’s ruling last week, which ordered that the defendants have access to state documents in which the names of people named in the Hinton investigation are not redacted, makes it clear that the inspector general’s concerns about the Hinton’s drug lab went beyond Dookhan. The ruling says that “it has become apparent that the OIG made and/or considered various criminal referrals to the Attorney General for other individuals at the Hinton Drug Laboratory.”
In June 2015, the inspector general’s office referred a matter to the attorney general’s office for possible prosecution “based on test results from an independent out-of-state lab, which did not match results from the Hinton Drug Lab, suggesting that the criminal acts may have been committed by someone else at the Hinton Laboratory,” Lu wrote.
“In addition, there were other instances where other people in the lab knew or should have known that certain substances were not considered controlled substances under Massachusetts law, but had certificates of analysis issued indicating that the substances were illegal, which which resulted in the defendants being wrongly convicted. ,” he wrote.
Lu did not reveal the identities of those people in his ruling, and numerous records remain sealed. Lu’s order prohibited all parties to the cases from sharing details of the recently unredacted state investigation documents.
In 2014, the inspector general said in a report that Dookhan was the “only bad actor” at the Hinton crime lab, and the inspector general’s office has reiterated this numerous times since, even as defense attorneys and judges have raised questions about scope. of the inspector general’s $6 million investigation.
A spokeswoman for state attorney general Maura Healey, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, declined to comment when asked what action, if any, the attorney general’s office took once it received the 2015 referral.
A spokesman for the inspector general’s office declined to comment, citing ongoing litigation.