BOSTON — Civil rights advocates this week called for the blanket release of all non-violent drug offenders convicted based upon evidence handled by discredited former drug lab chemist Annie Dookhan, and for the records of potentially thousands more felons to be expunged.
As the fallout of the ongoing investigation into evidence tampering at a state drug lab continues, the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts and Families Against Mandatory Minimums wrote a letter to Attorney General Martha Coakley and the state’s district attorneys calling the case-by-case handling of convictions tainted by Dookhan in specially convened drug courts a waste of time and public resources.
Meanwhile, warning that hundreds of violent criminals with histories of drug trafficking could soon be released into city neighborhoods, Boston Mayor Thomas Menino and public safety officials announced plans to launch an emergency reentry program and put more police on the streets in preparation for the fallout of the ongoing investigation into evidence tampering at a state drug lab.
“It’s unfortunate that one person can cause such harm to the legal process and in turn such potential for harm to the neighborhoods in our city and state,” said Menino, who met with Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis, Suffolk County District Attorney Dan Conley, U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz and others to discuss the intervention plan.
Starting yesterday in Norfolk County, “crisis re-entry teams” were scheduled to begin pre-release visitations with felons expected to be released as a result of the tainted evidence at the lab. Comprised of representatives from the Boston Police Department, district attorneys, the Department of Probation and Boston Centers for Youth and Family, the teams will case manage each individual released.
“They’re getting out very abruptly They’re serving a five-, a 10-, a 15-year sentence and then someone knocks on their door cell and says, ‘By the way it’s your lucky day. Annie Dookhan analyzed your drugs so we’re going to address your case.’ And since it was so abrupt and there was no preparation this is why the commissioner and mayor and others behind me thought it was good to have these intervention sessions,” Conley said.
Menino also said Boston police would be given more resources to police neighborhoods, costing an estimated $3.5 million in overtime and personnel, and the mayor said he would be making a formal request to the state and federal government for financial assistance.
Conley called it a “myth” that corrections facilities are filled with low-level, non-violent drug offenders, suggesting that many of those who will be freed have histories of significant drug trafficking. “These are not young, low-level drug addicts we’re talking about. These are people with violent histories almost across the board,” he said.
The ACLU said Coakley should work with district attorneys to dismiss all cases that do not involve charges for violent crimes or weapons offenses, that involve instances of police or prosecutors calling Dookhan directly at the lab to discuss test results, or cases for defendants in certain instances who have served at least half of their sentence.
“The spectacular failure of the Hinton lab is a reason to dismiss many of these cases, rather than to spend $100 million re-prosecuting them,” ACLU of Massachusetts Legal Director Matthew Segal said. “That expenditure of time and money would be a waste of both.”
Segal said the organization was not proposing a specific plan for how or when the prisoners would be released, but said the resources being spent to hear each of these cases in court, and the likelihood of subsequent litigation by defendants calls for a broader solution.
“We’re not proposing to decide all that for ourselves, but one of the key questions here is how is the commonwealth going to use its money and we think we’ll spend less money and spend it more intelligently if we can devote some of it to reentry programs and less of it to the hard slog of re-prosecuting cases for no particular benefits,” Segal said.
A spokesman for Conley said the argument shows a “fundamental misunderstanding of what’s going on in our courtrooms.” Spokesman Jake Wark said prosecutors are proceeding case-by-case, in many instances assenting to the release or reversal of convictions that were based on evidence now believed to be compromised. “The alternative would be to ignore the facts of every case and we’re not going to do that,” Wark said.
Asked about the letter, Conley said, “We’re not going to take instruction, albeit perhaps good intentioned, from the American Civil Liberties Union on that issue.”
County prosecutors have estimated that the handling of the tainted drug lab cases could cost their offices as much as $50 million, and the ACLU said it will cost at least as much for defense attorneys, including public defenders.
Officials have said Dookhan handled samples in more than 34,000 cases during her career at the Hinton Laboratory in Jamaica Plain, including 1,140 cases for defendants currently incarcerated in state prisons, jails or houses of correction.
Conley made a point during the press conference with Menino that the lab under investigation was run by the state Department of Public Health, and not Boston or state police. He called the situation at the Jamaica Plain lab an “utter disgrace” while assuring the public that the forensic analyses being done at the BPD headquarters laboratory were “impeccable science.”
According to police reports, Dookhan has admitted to investigators to altering drug samples to produce false test results, and has so far been charged with two counts of obstruction of justice and one count of falsely pretending to hold a university degree. Dozens of defendants have been released or had bails reduced as a result of the scandal.
Segal said that in addition to releasing those currently serving sentences, prosecutors should begin the process of wiping clean the records of former felons convicted based on evidence or testimony provided by Dookhan.
“The fact of the conviction can continue to affect their lives outside the world of the criminal justice system,” Segal said after writing in the letter that reprosecuting cases might be “worthwhile” if there was evidence that the “war on drugs” had positive effects on the lives of criminals and society.
While the ACLU and Families Against Mandatory Minimums were focused on state drug convictions, federal court Judge Mark Wolf told the Boston Globe Thursday that a team of court officials have determined that Dookhan handled samples in more than 100 cases at the federal district court level.
Wolf also told the newspaper that 500 other cases involved samples tested at the Hinton Lab during the time Dookhan worked there, potentially compromising those convictions as well. There are also an unknown number of federal sentences that may have been based on state-level convictions that are now being thrown out, the judge said.