Mass. Supreme Judicial Court to Consider Remedy for Tens of Thousands of People Affected by Massive Drug Lab Scandal

More than three years after revelation of criminal misconduct by Annie Dookhan, defendants convicted with tainted evidence still cannot clear their names

January 7, 2015

On January 8, 2015, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court will hear arguments in a case brought on behalf of three individuals by Foley Hoag LLP, the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, and the national ACLU, which seeks to provide swift justice for tens of thousands of people who were unfairly convicted of drug crimes on the basis of tainted evidence, and to allow those people to challenge their wrongful convictions without fear of retaliation by prosecutors. SJC Justice Margot Botsford has said that, in this case, the SJC might now wish to consider a “systemic approach” to the state’s drug lab scandal.

The scale of the problem created by the state drug lab scandal is unmatched anywhere in the country, and the Commonwealth has been slow to respond. More than three years after the revelation of massive criminal misconduct by Massachusetts crime lab technician Annie Dookhan, a list of docket numbers for the affected cases is still not available, and defendants who were convicted based on evidence that Dookhan falsified or tampered with still have no fair and efficient way to clear their names, argues a brief filed by Foley Hoag, the ACLU of Massachusetts, and the National ACLU.

The petition filed by Foley Hoag and the ACLU contends that due process requires that people whose rights have been violated by the Dookhan scandal have a fair chance to overturn wrongful convictions and withdraw unjust plea bargains that, in most cases, put felony criminal convictions on their records.

As the law now stands, prosecutors can use the threat of longer prison terms, including mandatory minimum sentences, to discourage Dookhan’s victims – who were largely poor people of color – from demanding new trials free of tainted evidence. These harsher punishments could even apply to people who have already served their sentences but risk returning to prison if they seek to vindicate their rights.

“People who have suffered due to what the SJC called ‘egregious government misconduct’ are being scared away from challenging their wrongful convictions by the threat of even harsher punishments,” said Foley Hoag partner Daniel Marx. “That unfairness, and the three-year lag in addressing this scandal, are two more examples of the problem at the heart of the recent rallies and demonstrations in Massachusetts and throughout the country: the problem of a broken justice system. The Massachusetts drug lab scandal helps to show the sheer magnitude of the problem, because the convictions of tens of thousands of people have been called into question.”

Marx leads the Foley Hoag legal team representing, along with ACLU Massachusetts and the national ACLU, three petitioners challenging their tainted convictions: Kevin Bridgeman, Yasir Creach and Miguel Cuevas. The firm is representing these petitioners pro bono, continuing its long record of taking on social justice cases that stretches back to Boston’s desegregation efforts in the 1970s.

All three pleaded guilty to drug-related charges to avoid harsher sentences, including mandatory minimum sentences, and did not find out until later that the Commonwealth relied on dubious evidence from Dookhan.

“Unless the Supreme Judicial Court takes decisive action to guarantee fair trials without threat of reprisals, thousands of people like our clients will have their lives held back by felony records that restrict the kinds of jobs they can hold and affect their standing in the community,” said Emma Andersson of the national ACLU’s Criminal Law Reform Project.

About The American Civil Liberties Union

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is the nation’s guardian of liberty. A private, voluntary, nonpartisan organization, it works daily in the courts, in legislatures, and in communities to defend and preserve our country’s basic civic values--the individual rights and liberties guaranteed to all by the Constitution and Bill of Rights. The ACLU of Massachusetts, with over 20,000 supporters across the Commonwealth, is a state affiliate of the national ACLU. We defend the principles enshrined in the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights as well as the U.S. Constitution.

About Foley Hoag LLP

Foley Hoag provides innovative, strategic legal services to public, private and government clients across the globe. We have premier capabilities in the life sciences, healthcare, technology, energy, professional services and investment management fields, and in cross-border disputes. Our professionals  possess the skills  and experience to provide exceptional senior level service to clients ranging from startups to multinational companies to sovereign states. For more information, visit www.foleyhoag.com or follow @FoleyHoag on Twitter.