Rachael Rollins Moves to Vacate 64 Guilty Pleas Following Drug Lab Scandal

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Rachael Rollins

By Dominique Kato & Shellsea Lomeli

SUFFOLK COUNTY, MA – Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins has asked the state’s Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) to vacate guilty pleas of 64 people facing drug charges who pleaded guilty to 91 drug charges after test results revealed the substances were not illegal drugs.

Between the years of 2003 and 2012, Annie Dookhan and Sonja Farak, two chemists at the Hilton Lab, engaged in a legacy of “egregious misconduct” which has resulted in their work over these years being deemed invalid. Suffolk County District Attorney’s office noted this series of misconduct as “the biggest crime lab scandal in U.S. history.” The faulty testing at the Hilton Lab, along with the Amherst Lab where Farak also worked, affected thousands and thousands of drug conviction cases. Dookhan was convicted of falsifying test results and Farak admitted to tampering with drug samples due to an underlying drug problem. The misconduct “resulted in the SJC ordering that more than 21,000 drug convictions be overturned as a result of faulty testing at the Hinton Lab.”

On May 11, 2020, the office of DA Rachael Rollins issued a pleading captioned Commonwealth v. 64 Innocent Individuals, in hopes of “closing another chapter on the biggest crime lab scandal in U.S. history.

“These 64 individuals pleaded guilty without having possessed controlled substances and have, for more than a decade, suffered the consequences of a criminal record after serving their sentences.” Rollins says in the pleading, “Collateral consequences of a criminal conviction can have a life-long impact on an individual’s capacity to gain employment, secure housing, and use government benefits.

“Defendants have no bargaining power in plea deals. Faced with long sentences if they go to trial and lose, as well as the threat of additional charges if the deal is not accepted, defendants very often accept a deal,” Rollins said in her statement.

In this case, 64 individuals engaged in plea bargaining without knowing evidence existed concluding they were innocent. These individuals were also unaware of the misconduct resulting from the Hinton Lab Scandal that had employed both Annie Dookhan and Sonja Farak.

“While the cases related to this motion to vacate were not specifically impacted by Dookhan’s and Farak’s misconduct, reparations are needed,” Rollins stated.

These 64 individuals have pleaded guilty and were convicted without receiving exculpatory evidence, evidence that could have exonerated these individuals, which violated their constitutional rights.

“The Commonwealth now requests that this Court remedy these constitutional violations by vacating their guilty pleas,” Rollins says in her statement, “Vacating these pleas, as the motion states, is a remedy not simply as a matter of obligation, but is in service to justice.”

The issue was first discovered by Christopher Post, a previous member of the Drug Lab Crisis Litigation Unity, a task-force created to deal with the effects of the scandal. Post said he was reviewing an on-line submission from a victim of the scandal and discovered in the database that the defendant’s drug certificate was negative.

Post’s collaboration with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) led to the creation of a new database consisting of hundreds of names from defendants around the state where drug tests were negative, yet, pleas had been accepted.
In a statement Posts says, “I am grateful that the Suffolk DAs Office was willing to listen and collaborate on this… None of this happened while DA Rollins was in office, but to her credit, she dedicated the time and resources to make sure that justice was ultimately done in these cases.”

District Attorney Rollins returned the gratitude to Christopher Post, saying, “I want to thank former CPCS attorney and former ACLU technologist Paola Villarreal for their outstanding work in identifying this significant miscarriage of justice and bringing it to the attention of my office.” She also thanked Luke Ryan for his persistent pursuit in getting answers for his clients.

“Without him, we would never have known the extent of the outrageous, deceptive, and criminal behavior occurring in our drug labs,” says Rollins.

Mathew Segal, a former public defender and current Legal Director of ACLU of Massachusetts, called this situation “more evidence that some innocent people plead guilty.”

Once the sentences are vacated, the District Attorney’s Office will enter nolle prosequis, meaning that if individuals request their records be expunged, then the office will move promptly to grant the request. Further, the DA’s office will review Board of Probation records to determine if individuals had subsequent convictions that resulted in harsher sentences because of their tainted pleas in these cases, and work to adjust those sentences,” says Rollins.

As Suffolk County moves forward, the District Attorney’s office is reviewing policies “to ensure that any future pleas are not impacted by the logistics of drug certification.”

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About The Author

The Vanguard Court Watch operates in Yolo, Sacramento and Sacramento Counties with a mission to monitor and report on court cases. Anyone interested in interning at the Courthouse or volunteering to monitor cases should contact the Vanguard at info(at)davisvanguard(dot)org - please email info(at)davisvanguard(dot)org if you find inaccuracies in this report.

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