Should 40,000 cases be tossed over drug-lab issues? Top state court to decide

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Over nearly a decade, a rogue chemist at a Massachusetts evidence laboratory potentially could have tainted 40,323 drug cases.

On Thursday, the state’s top court will hear arguments about how that issue should be fixed, the Wall Street Journal (sub. req.) reports.

Last year, the Supreme Judicial Court decided it should be presumed misconduct occurred in a case of a defendant whose evidence was tested by Dookhan. However, the court ruled that the defendant would have to show he or she would not have pleaded guilty if the flawed test results had been known.

Although nearly 1,000 individuals charged in drug cases have pursued relief, the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts is arguing that the system of redress is too slow and difficult to provide an effective remedy to those whose claimed lab results may have been incorrect. It says all cases that may have been tainted should be thrown out, followed by a narrow window of opportunity for the government to reprosecute them.

“The question is not whether people are factually guilty or whether they could be convicted if they got a fair trial,” partner Daniel Marx of Foley Hoag, who is helping the ACLU, tells the newspaper. “The question is whether they got a fair trial or whether they got a fair process if they pleaded guilty, and the answer is no.”

The case is being watched by officials in a number of other states facing similar issues with their evidence laboratories that are in an earlier stage of resolution.

District attorneys say the review process should be more individualized and careful. The extent to which faulty lab tests may have influenced case results varies, since many may involve other crimes and a variety of evidence, a spokesman for the Suffolk County DA tells the Wall Street Journal.

Earlier Boston Globe and Boston Herald articles provide more details.

Related coverage:

ABA Journal (2013): “Crime labs under the microscope after a string of shoddy, suspect and fraudulent results”

ABAJournal.com: “In wake of crime lab scandal, ACLU asks top state court for dismissal of 40,000 cases”

Al Jazeera: “Flawed forensics: Undoing the dirty work of Annie Dookhan”

See also:

ABAJournal.com: “Former Mass. chemist gets 3 to 5 years as probe of state crime-lab issues continues”

ABAJournal.com: “Convicted chemist ‘sole bad actor’ at Mass. crime lab, but IG report questions 2,300 tests by others”

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