Massachusetts Has Plan to Reverse Convictions in Thousands of Cases Due to Forensic Lab Failure

By Alexander Ramirez

SUFFOLK COUNTY, MA – County District Attorney Rachael Rollins filed a motion this week announcing the “Hinton Lab Initiative” which could vacate thousands of drug convictions that were certified by the scandal-ridden Hinton Lab between May 2003 and August 2012.

During the nine-year period that the Hinton facility was still functioning before a shutdown by Governor Deval Patrick, there were around 82,800 samples certified, with 7,800 already reviewed and vacated. That leaves some 74,800 samples as the target of this initiative.

This number does not represent the number of defendants associated with this initiative because there could be multiple samples for a single defendant or vice versa.

Specifically, it was during these nine years that disgraced chemist Annie Dookhan or convicted chemist Sonja Farak worked at the laboratory.

The combined scandals of Dookhan and Farak have resulted in tens of thousands of overturned convictions, about $30 million in costs, and thousands of hours of work on part of the DA’s office that could have been spent on community involvement or solving other cases.

In the pleading, DA Rollins noted the “enormous harm inflicted on the criminal legal system by a lapse of systemic magnitude,” and said the team will now work to find a global resolution that can start to rebuild trust in the system.

The Hinton Lab Initiative is necessary, Rollins said, because the Commonwealth failed “to adequately and appropriately manage a forensic agency that provided prima facie evidence used to convict” defendants, and that utter failure “constitutes misconduct and demands the result here.”

Besides this initiative, other actions have also been taken related to Hinton Lab.

In 2020, David Lewis of Rollin’s Integrity Review Bureau requested that 117 convictions that were supposed to be vacated by a ruling by the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) were to be vacated.

Last May, General Counsel Donna Patalano asked the SJC to vacate convictions for 64 people who pleaded guilty to drug charges before Hinton was able to test the substances related to these 64 people. Once the substances were tested, they were found to not be illegal drugs.

These cases are now in trial court.

From the filing, “The time has come to fully address the impact of systemic misconduct in the Hinton Lab. In doing so, the Commonwealth embraces the high standard that our Constitution requires…It may never be early enough to address such egregious and systemic misconduct, but it is never too late to rectify the injustice suffered by so many individuals,”

Other than vacating the sentences, the DA’s Office will also continue to remedy the records of defendants affected by the Hinton Lab and current cases also affected by the lab, including the consequences from convictions of people such as employment, education, and government benefits, among others.

However, the initiative will not change other charges in the cases that were affected, like gun possession, for example.

“We will convene a summit next month to begin identifying individual defendants, reviewing the cases, and determining next steps. After years of litigation, this is an important step toward restoring trust and faith in the criminal legal system.

“By working together with our courtroom partners, today we no longer rely on potentially falsified or fabricated evidence, and finally declare what we should have over a decade ago, that the abject and systematic mismanagement of the Hinton Lab has rendered anything produced there inherently suspect,” said the filing.

Alexander Ramirez is a third-year Political Science major at the University of California, Davis. He hopes to hone his writing skills in preparation for the inevitable time of graduation.

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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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