More than 24,000 convictions in 16,449 cases tainted by former state chemist Sonja Farak have been dismissed in a court case brought by the ACLU of Massachusetts, the Committee of Public Counsel Services (CPCS), and law firm Fick & Marx LLP. The new numbers appear in a report issued by a court-designated “Special Master.”
“This is a historic victory for thousands of people who were deeply harmed by our criminal legal system, first by Sonja Farak’s wrongdoing and then by the wrongdoing of government attorneys who covered up the scandal,” said Matthew Segal, legal director at the ACLU of Massachusetts. “Although we cannot recover all the time, housing, jobs, and other opportunities that were wrongfully taken from people, including our individual clients Herschelle Reeves and Nicole Westcott, we hope that this litigation has delivered some justice to them, and a new and better way of handling wrongful convictions.”
For nearly nine years, former state chemist Sonja Farak used drugs that she stole from or manufactured in the Amherst Lab, causing thousands of people to be wrongfully convicted of drug crimes based on unreliable evidence. Since her arrest in 2013, Farak’s lab misconduct has been compounded by prosecutorial misconduct, including by former prosecutors with the Attorney General’s Office who – according to a judge’s findings – intentionally deceived a court and defense lawyers about the massive scope of Farak’s misconduct. In 2017, the ACLU of Massachusetts and CPCS, together with Fick & Marx LLP, called for dismissal of every case tainted by Farak and subsequent years of prosecutorial misconduct. In April 2018, the Supreme Judicial Court ordered that thousands of convictions be dismissed.
"This latest mass dismissal of wrongful drug convictions sends a clear message to the Commonwealth about the need to end our misguided War on Drugs,” said Daniel Marx, a partner at Fick & Marx.
The new Special Master’s Report, issued by retired Appeals Court Justice Judd Carhart, follows the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court’s October 2018 decision in CPCS v. Attorney General. In that decision, the Court ordered sweeping dismissals of Farak-tainted cases, required that the Attorney General's Office pay for notice to the affected people as a sanction for misconduct by two of its former attorneys, and called for changes to a rule of criminal procedure so that prosecutors receive additional instructions about their obligations to disclose evidence.
“While we are gratified that over 16,000 people finally received this measure of justice, it is disgraceful that it took over five years for the Commonwealth to address these wrongful convictions that denied people employment, housing and other opportunities necessary to lead more productive lives and provide for their families,” said Rebecca Jacobstein, director of strategic litigation at CPCS.
The new Special Master’s Report also reveals that, as part of the sanction requiring the Attorney General's Office to inform Farak’s victims of their rights, the Office paid for individualized notice letters, notecards and fliers that were posted in government buildings, and $64,505 in advertising to spread word of the dismissals.
This case follows the ACLU’s 2017 victory in Bridgeman v. District Attorney for the Suffolk District, when a ruling by the Supreme Judicial Court resulted in the dismissal of an estimated 36,707 convictions in 21,332 cases tainted by former state chemist Annie Dookhan. That was, and appears to remain, the single largest dismissal of wrongful convictions in the nation’s history.
Together, the two drug lab cases brought by the ACLU, CPCS, and Fick & Marx have now resulted in over 61,000 dismissed Farak- and Dookhan-related drug charges across more than 37,000 cases.
Pictured: CPCS v. Attorney General plaintiffs Herschelle Reaves and Nicole Westcott. Photo by Ray Bernoff.