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Nearly 20,000 drug convictions dismissed over chemist’s misconduct

Because of a lab chemist’s widespread criminal misconduct in analyzing drug samples, about 95% of 20,000 drug convictions in Massachusetts have been dismissed, according to the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts.

“That is a victory for regular people, for people who’ve been tarnished by these drug convictions,” said Carl Williams, a staff attorney for the ACLU.

Those drug convictions had relied on analysis from Annie Dookhan, a former chemist for the Department of Public Health. Dookhan worked testing drug samples submitted by law enforcement agencies from 2003 until 2012, when investigators accused her of contaminating drug samples, falsifying results, and mishandling evidence.

Investigators said she admitted to intentionally contaminating some samples to turn them from negative samples into positive samples. She also admitted to “dry labbing” in which she tested a few samples but reported the same results for multiple other samples.

Dookhan pleaded guilty in November 2013 to 27 criminal counts in all, including charges of perjury, evidence tampering and obstruction of justice. She was sentenced to 3 to 5 years in prison, and was released last year.

Former state chemist Annie Dookhan pleaded guilty to tampering with evidence and falsifying thousands of tests in criminal drug cases, calling into question evidence used to prosecute the defendants.

In all, the scandal cast doubt on drug-testing analyses in about 40,000 cases from 2003 to 2012. More than 20,000 convictions of those remained against so-called “Dookhan Defendants.”

Mass dismissals of cases

The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts ruled in January that going through each of those cases would be too time consuming, and so ordered district attorneys to produce a list by Tuesday of drug convictions that they planned to dismiss.

In Suffolk County, which covers Boston, prosecutors identified 15,570 viable drug convictions to be dismissed, district attorney Dan Conley said in a statement. In all of those cases, there were corroborating facts and evidence against the defendants, he said.

“If there had been evidence that any of these defendants was actually innocent, we would not have hesitated to dismiss the case outright and exonerate the defendant immediately,” said Conley.

None of the defendants whose convictions were vacated had been imprisoned solely on Dookhan-related cases, Conley said.

Anthony Benedetti, chief counsel with Committee for Public Counsel Services, said people wrongly convicted of these crimes had lost jobs, lost housing, and in some cases had been deported.

“Although this is a fair and just result now, in many respects, the damage has been done,” Benedetti said. “Justice delayed is justice denied.”