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'Egregious' misconduct at state drug lab spurs guilty plea reviews

The SJC ruled that defendants seeking to toss out their guilty pleas can have their cases reviewed because of "egregious" misconduct at a state drug lab.

The state drug testing lab in Jamaica Plain was closed after former chemist Annie Dookhan was arrested for evidence tampering. (Nicolaus Czarnecki/Metro) The state drug testing lab in Jamaica Plain was closed after former chemist Annie Dookhan was arrested for evidence tampering.
Credit: Nicolaus Czarnecki/Metro

The state's highest court on Wednesday ruled that drug defendants seeking to toss out their guilty pleas can have their cases reviewed because of "egregious" misconduct at a state drug lab.

The unanimous decision by the Supreme Judicial Court focuses on the cases of defendants impacted by the mishandling of drug evidence by convicted former state chemist Annie Dookhan.

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"The defendant is entitled to a conclusive presumption that Dookhan's misconduct occurred in his case, that it was egregious, and that it is attributable to the Commonwealth," Justice Francis Spina wrote in the decision released Wednesday.

Justices rejected a lower court's ruling to allow a defendant to withdraw his guilty plea because Dookhan had been involved in testing the drug evidence in his case. Instead, the SJC sent it back to the lower court to determine if a guilty plea would have still been the result.

A lower court judge should determine whether, "the defendant can demonstrate a reasonable probability that had he known of Dookhan's misconduct, he would not have admitted to sufficient facts and would have insisted on taking his chances at trial," the ruling said.

Suffolk County District Attorney Dan Conley said that he is confident many defendants would have still pleaded guilty even if they knew ahead of time of Dookhan's actions.

"Many defendants, we believe, would still have pleaded guilty, and not just in exchange for a reduction in sentencing. The evidence in a drug case is almost never limited just to the drugs: there’s packaging, cutting agents, baggies, cash, phone calls and text messages, and the defendant’s actions before, during, and after the seizure of drug evidence," Conley said in a statement.

The ruling comes one day after the state's inspector general released the findings of a 15-month review of the drug lab crisis.

The report said a former state chemist who tampered with drug evidence samples was a “sole bad actor,” but that there were management failures at the lab and that managers there were "ill-suited to oversee a forensic drug lab."

Follow Michael Naughton on Twitter @metrobosmike.

 
 
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