Criminal Convictions

The WSJ Lawblog has an interesting article discussing the issue of how should the criminal justice system deal with defendants whose criminal convictions hinged on evidence tested at a scandal-ridden crime lab.

It’s a vexing question for prosecutors and judges, and one that has gained urgency amid a string of reports across the country about lab failures.  Massachusetts’s highest court will try to tackle it.

Reports WSJ’s Jennifer Levitz:

The state Supreme Judicial Court will hear arguments on a request to toss out tens of thousands of convictions tied to a former Massachusetts drug-lab chemist who is serving a prison sentence after pleading guilty in 2013 to tampering with evidence.

The actions by Annie Dookhan, who worked at the lab from 2003 to 2012, potentially tainted 40,323 drug cases, state officials have said.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, which filed the petition, says convictions based on Ms. Dookhan’s tests should be presumed flawed and set aside en masse. District attorneys argue reviews should be done on a case-by-case basis.

“This is potentially an extremely important opportunity to create a model for other states,” said University of Virginia School of Law professor Brandon Garrett, an expert in criminal procedure. “These crime-lab scandals are not going away. There need to be ground rules to grant relief for all these people whose cases are affected.”

Massachusetts discovered the problem in 2012 while transferring control of the lab to the state police from the state public-health agency. Ms. Dookhan, known as one of the most productive chemists at the lab, admitted to visually identifying some drugs rather than performing the required chemical test, according to prosecutors.

She pleaded guilty to more than two dozen charges and was sentenced to three to five years in prison.

A separate report issued by the governor’s office found that many of the 40,323 tainted cases involved low-level drug offenses that didn’t lead to prison time but saddled defendants with the potential consequences of a criminal record.

As of late November, close to 1,000 people had undergone hearings seeking new trials, plea withdrawals or other relief related to the lab scandal, according to the WSJ article, citing state court officials. About 375 people had been released from the state Department of Corrections as of Dec. 29.



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