Massachusetts courts have had a bad year.
A Massachusetts lab technician, Sonja Farak, came to work high every day for 8 years. Well technically, sometimes she arrived sober but was soon high as a kite.
She worked in a lab that tested drugs confiscated from arrested suspects. Of course, she wasn’t supposed to personally test the drugs… that was what the lab equipment was for.
In 2014 Farak was sentenced to 18 months in prison and was released in 2015. It took another three years for the courts to toss 11,000 convictions tainted by the worker.
That is right, the people that Farak helped wrongly convict stayed in prison for another three years after Sonja Farak was released.
There is now a $5.7 million civil case against Farak, brought by Ronaldo Penate, who was convicted using her testimony. On the day Sonja tested the drugs involved in his case, she had smoked crack in the bathroom in addition to taking acid or LSD. The man served over five years in prison based on her trippy testimony, before his conviction was vacated.
In addition to Farak, Penate names as defendants former state attorneys general and other bureaucrats who exacerbated the fiasco by allegedly trying to cover up or gloss over the extent of the chemist’s drug abuse.
Managers also ignored conditions at the outlier lab in Amherst, which gave Farak free rein to raid the drugs in her care over many years, court records say.
Farak will join in motions to dismiss, based on the general argument that Penate likely would have been convicted even if jurors learned Farak was using drugs on the job.
But that was just the latest.
Last year, a Massachusetts court had to vacate 21,000 drug convictions due to one state lab employee.
First, Annie Dookhan lied about her qualifications in order to advance her carer as an expert witness. She was testifying at trials, getting people thrown in jail, without any actual expertise on topics on which she testified.
Then, Dookhan committed fraud by falsely certifying that inert substances were illegal drugs.
The Dookhan was convicted in 2013, but the cases she worked on were not vacated until 2017.
The drug convictions — which spanned the seven counties of Suffolk, Essex, Bristol, Middlesex, Plymouth, Norfolk and Cape & Islands — had relied on the doctored lab results of Annie Dookhan, whose misdeeds came to light in 2012 after she forged a colleague’s initials. The employee with the state Department of Public Health had lied about having a master’s degree, declared untested drug samples as positive and otherwise committed massive fraud in order to advance her career and build a reputation as an expert witness in drug trials.
In 2013, she pleaded guilty to 27 counts, including evidence tampering, perjury and obstruction of justice, and was sentenced to three to five years in prison, with two years of probation, according to The New York Times.
She was paroled after three years and released from prison before the sentences of those she helped convict were vacated. That’s because, despite the clear wrongdoing, the state still fought against dismissing the cases tainted by Dookhan’s lies.
Carl Williams, staff attorney for the ACLU of Massachusetts, said his organization faced resistance and had to sue the district attorney’s office to bring about the thousands of dismissals. He stated in a phone interview that this, “the largest dismissal of criminal cases based on a single court filing in history,” is part of a systemic problem involving prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges and jailers.
“This is the war on drugs,” Williams said of the larger implications of Dookhan. “Over 24,000 cases from eight years, and they called her superwoman because she was doing the bidding of the system of mass incarceration and the war on drugs.[“]
This is the justice system in the Land of the Free.
The war on drugs is bad enough when it ensnares those guilty of victimless crimes. But it hits another whole level when corrupt officials add thousands of innocent victims based on false and tainted lab reports.
The amount of lives these two individuals have ruined is staggering. 32,000 people were added to the ranks of the victims of the war on drugs, because of the false testimony of two individuals.
And then there are the countless hours and dollars wasted putting these people through the justice system, and more to clean up the mess–or try to sweep it under the rug.
One person should never have that sort of power over the fates of so many. Criminal cases should never rest on the testimony of one witness who could so easily lie to selfishly advance her own career. Or one witness who is a worse drug addict than the people she was convicting.
And even though these two women were revealed as frauds, how many other lab workers out there are lying or getting high on the job? How many others mess up a test when they have a hangover, and accidentally send someone to jail for a decade? How many are testifying as experts without the qualifications?
These are just people, with all the faults and weaknesses. Being a government employee doesn’t magically make someone trustworthy, or eliminate the possibility that they are a drug addict, a power-hungry liar, or even just make honest mistakes from time to time. Yet because of their words, tens of thousands of people are thrown in cages.
You could say justice was served in the end, but not for the thousands of people who already served their prison sentences, or who may have stood a better chance of defending themselves at a trial not tainted by false statements and fabricated government testimony.
But the real lesson is that the justice system is far from the immaculate bastion of honor and objectivity that people like to pretend.