Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court refused to outright dismiss the nearly 21,000 drug related criminal cases linked to Annie Dookhan.
On Wednesday, January 18th, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court refused to outright dismiss the nearly 21,000 drug related criminal cases that have been found to be linked to chemist, Annie Dookhan, who faked test results in order to favor the government. Dookhan, formerly of the Hinton State Laboratory Institute, pleaded guilty in 2013 to 27 charges related to obstruction of justice. She was sentenced by Superior Court Judge Carol S. ball to three to five years in a state prison, with two years of probation following completion of her prison sentence. Dookhan had no prior criminal history. However, the ramifications of her actions were extensive, affecting thousands of defendants being held on drug related charges.
Instead of simply moving for dismissal, the court chose to eliminate the majority of the cases in question, but leave some open for additional interpretation. It adopted a new procedure which institutes revised timelines for prosecutors to use in determining whether or not a case should be pursued. It was the hope of the court that the new timelines would help ensure proper justice could be served.
Under the new proposal, district attorneys have 90 days to notify courts of drug convictions they intend either to dismiss due to a lack of evidence or pursue. After this 90 day period, they have an additional 30 days to notify alleged offenders in cases that are set to move forward. Any cases in which the prosecutor does not have the means to re-try if necessary, based on a lack of evidence or resources, should be considered for dismissal. These cases could unjustifiably consume valuable court resources by being dragged out to a certain point, then ultimately dismissed.
Prior to instituting the new time frames, it was usually left up to defendants to appeal their convictions on an individual basis. Of the 21,000 notices sent to alleged offenders indicating their cases are moving forward, only 2,000 chose to seek new trials. It is thought that this low response rate was due to the perceived validity of evidence submitted by a licensed chemist, which is rarely questioned. The defendants chose not to bother trying to prove false results, and so their fate was left up to the court to decide.
Given public information that Dookhan’s testing could be defective, it is thought that a much larger number of defendants will now chose to petition for a new trial. Whether the results are valid or not, defendants are likely to believe they have a better shot at proving innocence. And, given the newly instituted time frames, it will be much easier for them to put the proper measures into place for doing so. This means there could be a substantial increase in demand for court resources, so prosecutors have been cautioned against choosing to pursue too many of these cases and overburdening the judicial system. All evidence will need to be carefully reviewed, and if there is simply not enough or if there’s any question at all that the evidence has been tampered with, a case should be dismissed.