In criminal cases, scientific evidence is given a significant amount of weight, whether that is DNA evidence or proof of that a certain substance is in fact illegal. However, as we’ve seen in a number of instances across the country in recent years, that evidence is not infallible. One of the most infamous cases of this was that of a chemist in Massachusetts, who reportedly admitted to manipulating drug test results in order to give prosecutors a leg up. She is believed to have been involved in more than 20,000 drug cases in the course of her 8.5 years working with the state crime lab (from which she was later fired).
Now, the question is what to do about all those potentially tainted convictions, many of which were secured using the test results of that chemist. Recently, more than 4.5 years after the chemist confessed, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has called on prosecutors to reverse potentially thousands of those.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, prosecutors have been reluctant throughout this process to reverse convictions where the chemist’s work played a role. In one instance, prosecutors argued they didn’t have any obligation to let those convicted know of their possible innocence in the court’s eyes. Incredibly, one prosecutor even opined that many of the defendants were probably too poor or else too tied up with issues that were more pressing, such as addiction or mental illness, to have any real desire to address these cases. But the state’s highest court isn’t buying that.
First of all, justices held that the notice prosecutors sent to the defendants was “wholly inadequate.” They didn’t contain key information, like the fact that defendants are now entitled to the legal presumption that the drug analysis in their case was tainted by official misconduct.
In fact, only about 10 percent of those affected had tried to obtain any kind of relief after the chemist’s revelation, presumably because many didn’t know it was an option. Now, justices have made it clear the delays need to stop. They noted that the chemist’s conduct left the court “only with poor alternatives.” However, that does not excuse the “glacial systemic response” of prosecutors, who now will have just one month to inform defendants whose convictions are still standing that they have the right to ask for a new trial if they want to challenge their conviction. Further, prosecutors are only going to be allowed to re-try cases where they can prove they still have enough evidence that isn’t tainted in which to make their case.
Unfortunately, of those 20,000 defendants who were impacted, those who entered a guilty plea before the chemist’s test results were returned from the lab won’t be eligible for relief. This is just one example of why it’s important for defendants in drug crime cases to have a good criminal defense attorney to review their case, carefully reviewing all the state’s evidence before making a recommendation about whether to fight the charge or accept a plea deal.
This revelation from the state’s highest court means we’re likely going to see thousands of these cases dismissed outright.
While this ruling only directly affects those in the Boston case, there have been many other cities across the country that have been affected by similar scandals, including Houston, San Francisco, St. Paul and Oklahoma City.
Call Fort Lauderdale Criminal Defense Attorney Richard Ansara at (954) 761-4011. Serving Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties.
Massachusetts Top Court Orders Prosecutors to Remedy Thousands of Tainted Drug Convictions, Jan. 23, 2017, By Patrick G. Lee, ProPublica
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