A decade-old scandal at a Massachusetts crime lab — which has led authorities to throw out tens of thousands of drug convictions — may involve wrongdoing by more people than previously known, according to a recent court order.
A state Superior Court judge said in a ruling relating to the release of a trove of state investigative documents that there is evidence that other employees of the William A. Hinton State Laboratory Institute – beyond disgraced former chemist Annie Dookhan – may have been at fault. At least one person was referred to the state attorney general’s office in 2015 for possible prosecution, Judge John T. Lu wrote last week.
The ruling stokes lingering doubts about statements by the state inspector general’s office over the past eight years that Dookhan was the “only bad actor” in Hinton’s lab. And that means the vast scandal could get worse.
“This is an important development. This rightly raises questions about the criminal convictions the lab helped produce with or without Annie Dookhan’s involvement,” said Matthew Segal, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, which conducted defense attorneys’ struggle to unearth the massive misconduct at two government-run Massachusetts labs that prompted the state’s top court to dismiss 61,000 drug charges.
Dookhan’s misconduct at Hinton’s lab came to light in 2012, after she had worked there for nearly a decade. She admitted to tampering with evidence, falsifying test results and lying about it, according to court records. She served three years in prison and was released in 2016. According to defense attorneys, most of the people she helped convict for minor drug offenses pleaded guilty and served their sentences long before. that she is not prosecuted. More than 21,000 cases she was working on have been dismissed.
Lu’s Sept. 16 ruling relates to cases in Middlesex County in which defendants are challenging drug convictions based on evidence that defense attorneys say was processed at Hinton’s lab — not by Dookhan, but by other chemists, including Sonja Farak.
Farak worked at the Hinton lab from 2002 to August 2004 before moving to a state lab in Amherst, where she nurtured a drug addiction using samples she was supposed to be testing in criminal cases, according to court records. She pleaded guilty in 2014 to evidence tampering and drug theft and was sentenced to 18 months in prison. More than 16,000 cases she was working on were dismissed.
Farak has not been charged with any wrongdoing in connection with her work at Hinton.
Farak and Dookhan could not immediately be reached for comment.
The Middlesex County defendants dispute their convictions, saying the state did not specifically investigate Farak and other chemists while they worked at Hinton.
“We need to get to the bottom of what happened at Hinton,” said James P. McKenna, who is representing two of the convicted Middlesex defendants with evidence tested by chemists other than Dookhan.
Former Massachusetts Inspector General Glenn A. Cunha, who retired this year, said in 2019 that his office had never specifically investigated Farak’s work at Hinton. Cunha did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment.
Dookhan and Farak’s misconduct and the fallout have been a continuing embarrassment to the state, and they have upended its criminal justice system. The state’s public defender’s office estimated last year that as many as 250,000 convictions resulted from lab work at the now closed Hinton Lab when Dookhan, Farak and other chemists worked there.
Thousands of those wrongfully convicted have gone to jail or jail or lost their jobs, homes and parental rights, defense attorneys say.
In June, the state agreed to pay up to $14 million to settle a class action lawsuit seeking to reimburse more than 30,000 wrongfully convicted defendants for fines and costs they paid the state in the prosecution based on problematic criminal lab tests. The state also spent more than $30 million on other costs related to investigating and addressing damage from the scandal.
Lu’s decision last week, which ordered that defendants have access to state documents in which the names of people mentioned in the Hinton investigation are not redacted, makes it clear that the inspector general’s concerns about Hinton’s drug lab went beyond Dookhan. The decision states that “it has become apparent that the OIG has made and/or considered multiple criminal referrals to the Attorney General for others at the Hinton Drug Lab.”
In June 2015, the Inspector General’s Office referred a case to the Attorney General’s Office for possible prosecution “based on test results from an independent out-of-state lab, which were inconsistent with the results of the Hinton Drug Lab, suggesting that criminal acts may have been committed by another person at the Hinton Lab,” Lu wrote.
“In addition, there have been other instances where others in the lab knew or should have known that certain substances were not considered controlled substances under Massachusetts law, but caused the issuance of certificates of analysis indicating that the substances were illegal, resulting in the wrongful conviction of the defendants,” he wrote.
Lu did not disclose the identities of these people in his decision, and many documents remain sealed. Lu’s order prohibited all parties to the cases from sharing details of newly unredacted state investigation documents.
In 2014, the Inspector General said in a report that Dookhan was the “only bad actor” at Hinton’s crime lab, and the Inspector General’s office has repeated this many times since then, even as the Defense attorneys and judges have raised questions about scope. of the Inspector General’s $6 million investigation.
A spokeswoman for the state’s attorney general, Maura Healey, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, declined to comment when asked what action — if any — the attorney general’s office took once the he had received the 2015 referral.
A spokesperson for the inspector general’s office declined to comment, citing ongoing litigation.