It’s been three years since investigators first discovered state lab chemist Annie Dookhan’s misconduct. Now, defendants can feel free from fear to request a new trial.  In a recent decision by the Massachusetts State Supreme Court, defendants convicted based upon evidence handled by state chemist Annie Dookhan can seek new trials without having to worry about “discouragement tactics” like additional charges.  The ACLU made the request.

The “Dookhan defendants” who ask to be tried again can not be charged with more serious crimes or given more severe sentences than they originally received.

Dookhan pled guilty in 2013 to perjury, obstruction of justice, and tampering with evidence for failing to properly test samples in several criminal cases. Dookhan would declare the substances positive for illicit drugs without ever actually testing them. Provide fabricated reports to corroborate her claims. She also mixed samples from multiple cases, forged signatures, and lied about her credentials.  She was sentenced to 3 to 5 years in prison and 2 years of probation.

More than 300 convictions have been vacated in Dookhan’s wake.  Thousands more could still come to light because of Dookhan’s misconduct.  It’s estimated Dookhan potentially tainted as many as 40,000 cases. Years later, only a tiny fraction of the defendants in those cases actually know Dookhan was involved.

The Suffolk District Attorney’s Office did not support the request. DA spokesman Jake Wark says, with its ruling, the high court is tying district attorneys’ hands.

“Convicted defendants now have nothing to lose and everything to gain,” said Wark.

The Court said no to a “global remedy”, that is throwing out all convictions that Dookhan had a part in, but they also said no to imposing deadlines for retrials.  Attorney Benjamin H. Keehn of the state Committee for Public Counsel Services says those options didn’t get to the heart of the matter.

“No remedy, whether it was global or case by case, was going to be feasible unless the court took seriously our concerns that we need the active participation and cooperation of the district attorneys in the eight affected counties…” Keehn believes that the first step should be identifying all the defendants and notifying them. That hasn’t happened.

The justices declined to force district attorneys to sort through their records to identify Dookhan defendants. Instead they “encourage” them to help.

“I do think this will help us persuade district attorneys to do the right thing.”

According to Massachusetts American Civil Liberties Union Legal Director Matthew Segal, many defendants have potentially refrained from applying for post-conviction relief because they faced being convicted of previously dropped charges and serving additional prison time. “This dynamic was causing the entire effort to get justice, due process, causing that effort to come to a screeching halt,” Segal told the New York Times, “People were not filing new motions. People were afraid.”

“For many years, many of Annie Dookhan’s victims have worried that challenging their convictions can subject them to even harsher convictions and sentences…This decision today is really monumental because it’s going to clear the path for many defendants – thousands, potentially tens of thousands – to pursue relief,” Segal told WGBH, “And that’s great, but it will raise questions about how easily that kind of volume can be dealt with.”


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