Massachusetts’ highest court ordered prosecutors to drop a large portion of the more than 24,000 drug convictions affected by the misconduct of former state drug lab chemist Annie Dookhan, the Boston Globe reports. The ruling included an urgent call to resolve a scandal that has plagued the legal system since 2012. The Supreme Judicial Court declined to order a wholesale dismissal of the cases potentially tainted by Dookhan’s mishandling of drug evidence, as defendants’ lawyers had sought. Justices acknowledged that the state’s handling of the cases so far has been inadequate. The court said the state’s district attorneys must “exercise their prosecutorial discretion and reduce the number of relevant Dookhan defendants by moving to vacate and dismiss with prejudice all drug cases the district attorneys would not or could not reprosecute if a new trial were ordered.”
The cases affected by the ruling include people who pleaded guilty, were convicted, or admitted that prosecutors had enough evidence to convict them. By vacating the cases, the convictions would effectively be erased. The court acknowledged the enormity of the task before prosecutors, giving them 90 days to decide which cases to throw out and which are supported by other evidence. The remedy “maintains the fairness and integrity of our criminal justice system in the wake of a laboratory scandal of unprecedented magnitude,” the court said. Before yesterday’s decision, defendants were responsible for appealing their cases if they thought they should be dismissed. Though the court had earlier directed prosecutors and defense attorneys to set up a system for appeals, the justices ruled that the case-by case approach was moving at an unacceptable crawl — with only 2,000 cases addressed. Civil liberties advocates expect thousands more Dookhan cases to be scrubbed from the record.