Epic Massachusetts crime lab scandal may involve even broader wrongdoing, judge says

A decade-old scandal at a Massachusetts crime lab — which led authorities to dismiss tens of thousands of drug convictions — may involve wrongdoing by more people than was previously known, according to a recent court order.

A state Superior Court judge said in a ruling related to the release of a trove of state investigative materials that there is evidence that other employees at the William A. Hinton State Laboratory Institute — beyond disgraced former chemist Annie Dookhan — may have engaged in misconduct. At least one person was referred to the state attorney general’s office in 2015 for potential 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 “sole bad actor” at the Hinton lab. And it means the vast scandal could grow.

“This is a significant development. It justifiably raises questions about the criminal convictions that the lab helped to produce with or without Annie Dookhan’s involvement,” said Matthew Segal, the legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, who has led the fight by defense lawyers to unearth the massive misconduct at a pair of government-run Massachusetts labs that prompted the state’s highest court to dismiss 61,000 drug charges.

Annie Dookhan

Annie Dookhan, center, is escorted out of her home by authorities in Franklin, Mass., on Sept. 28, 2012.Bizuayehu Tesfaye / AP

Dookhan’s misconduct at the Hinton lab was exposed in 2012, after she had worked there for nearly a decade. She admitted to tampering with evidence, forging test results and lying about it, according to court records. She served three years in prison and was released in 2016. Most of the people she helped convict of low-level drug offenses pleaded guilty and finished their sentences long before she was prosecuted, according to defense lawyers. More than 21,000 cases she worked on have been dismissed.

Lu’s ruling Sept. 16 is connected to cases in Middlesex County in which defendants are challenging drug convictions based on evidence that defense attorneys say was processed at the Hinton lab — not by Dookhan, but by other chemists, including Sonja Farak.

Farak worked at the Hinton lab from 2002 to August 2004 before she moved to a state lab in Amherst, where she fed a drug addiction by using samples she was supposed to be analyzing in criminal cases, according to court records. She pleaded guilty in 2014 to tampering with evidence and drug theft charges and was sentenced to 18 months in jail. More than 16,000 cases she worked on have been 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 are challenging their convictions, saying the state failed to specifically investigate Farak and other chemists while they worked at Hinton.

“We have to get to the bottom of what happened at Hinton,” said James P. McKenna, who represents two of the Middlesex defendants convicted 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 never specifically investigated Farak’s work at Hinton. Cunha did not immediately respond to an email requesting comment.

Dookhan’s and Farak’s misconduct and the fallout have been a persisting embarrassment for the state, and they have upended its criminal justice system. The state 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 wrongly convicted people went to prison or jail or lost their jobs, homes and parental rights, according to defense lawyers.

In June, the state agreed to pay as much as $14 million to settle a class-action lawsuit to reimburse more than 30,000 wrongfully convicted defendants for the fines and fees they paid the state in prosecutions based on problematic crime lab tests. The state has also spent more than $30 million for other costs connected to investigating and addressing the harm of the scandal.

Lu’s ruling last week, which ordered that the defendants be given 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 the Hinton drug lab went beyond Dookhan. The ruling says that “it has become evident that the OIG made and/or considered several criminal referrals to the Attorney General for other persons at the Hinton Drug Lab.”

In June 2015, the inspector general’s office referred one matter to the attorney general’s office for possible prosecution “based on test results from an independent out-of-state laboratory, which were inconsistent with the Hinton Drug Lab results, suggesting that criminal acts may have been committed by another person at the Hinton Lab,” Lu wrote.

“Also, there were other instances where other persons at the lab knew or should have known that certain substances were not considered controlled substances under Massachusetts law but caused certificates of analysis to be issued stating that the substances were illegal, resulting in defendants being wrongfully convicted,” he wrote.

Lu did not disclose the identities of those people in his ruling, and numerous records remain under seal. Lu’s order barred all parties to the cases from sharing details of the newly unredacted state investigation documents.

In 2014, the inspector general said in a report that Dookhan was the “sole bad actor” at the Hinton crime lab, and the inspector general’s office has restated that numerous times since then, even as defense attorneys and judges have raised questions about the scope of the inspector general’s $6 million investigation.

A spokesperson for state Attorney General Maura Healey, the Democratic nominee for governor, declined to comment when she was asked what action — if any — the attorney general’s office took once it received the 2015 referral.

A spokesman for the inspector general’s office declined to comment, citing ongoing litigation.

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