Fate of thousands at stake as Massachusetts court hears arguments on tainted drug evidence



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BOSTON — None of the tens of thousands of defendants convicted of drug crimes after a chemist in a Massachusetts lab tampered with evidence should face the possibility of a harsher sentence if they seek a new trial, the American Civil Liberties Union argued Thursday.

The case before the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court involves Annie Dookhan, a drug lab chemist who was sentenced in 2013 to at least three years in prison after admitting she faked test results.

ACLU lawyer Matthew Segal said many "Dookhan defendants" are afraid of asking a judge to vacate their guilty pleas in order to seek a new trial because under state law, they can be prosecuted for crimes that had been dropped when they entered their original plea deal.

"They are afraid, and with good reason," said Segal, the legal director for the ACLU of Massachusetts.

The ACLU estimates over 40,000 convictions are linked with the drug lab scandal, but prosecutors suggested the number that would ultimately seek to have their convictions overturned is much lower.

Lawyers for the Suffolk and Essex County District Attorney's offices opposed the ACLU's request, saying it is hypothetical and not yet appropriate for review by the court. They also rejected the argument that prosecutors would seek to "punish" defendants who seek new trials.

"Revival of the original charges requires no action by the prosecutor and thus cannot carry a vindictive intent," the district attorneys said in a legal brief. "Rather, the original charge will be revived by operation of law, as they have been in this Commonwealth for over one-hundred years."

The Committee for Public Counsel Services, which oversees public defenders in Massachusetts, said prosecutors have delayed in providing basic information to help identify and reach out to affected convicts, a notion the district attorney's offices disputed.

"We're two and a half years out from this and we're virtually no closer than we were when this scandal broke to actually being able to provide relief to those that had their rights violated," said Benjamin Keehn, the committee's lawyer. "We don't know. It could be 40,000 convictions, or 30,000 or 20,000."

The case — Kevin Bridgeman vs. District Attorney for the Suffolk District — centers on three men who had pleaded guilty to drug-related charges based on evidence tested and potentially tainted by Dookhan. Prosecutors noted none of the three men has gone as far as to have their cases retried, let alone been reconvicted with a harsher sentence.

The justices, who also heard arguments Thursday in two other cases related to the scandal, are expected to rule at a later date on the ACLU's petition.

The drug lab scandal erupted when Dookhan admitted she tampered with evidence at the William A. Hinton State Laboratory Institute in Boston. The scandal forced the closure of the drug lab in 2012.

Dookhan eventually pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice, perjury and tampering with evidence.

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