Massachusetts district attorneys have decided to dismiss more than 6,000 drug crime convictions, due to misconduct by a drug lab chemist and two ex-state prosecutors.
Sonja Farak worked for about nine years as a chemist for state Department of Public Health crime labs, most of that time at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, in the western section of the state. She apparently began using drugs on the job soon after starting work there, taking them both from evidence specimens police submitted for testing and from the lab’s supply of control samples used for testing comparisons.
Though Farak later disclosed she was high at work nearly every day, using a wide variety of substances, her supervisors and co-workers appeared not to notice anything unusual in her behavior. But in 2013, discrepancies in her records led a supervisor to call in the state police, their investigation found illegal drugs in her possession and evidence she had pillaged evidence samples, covering up her raids by refilling evidence samples with counterfeit substances.
She was fired for evidence tampering and stealing cocaine from the lab. She not only used while at work a wide variety of drugs in plentiful supply there, but even took to cooking up crack cocaine while in the lab, using the office’s cocaine samples as the raw material.
Pleading guilty to evidence tampering and stealing cocaine from the lab, she was convicted in 2014 and sentenced to serve a year and a half. The discovery of Farak’s misdeeds raised immediate problems for local prosecutors across the state. The certifications she had issued that her tests proved police evidence in fact contained controlled substances had played a key part in many cases.
Not only was her credibility highly questionable, but in some cases, she had actually consumed the evidence. But when staff from the state attorney general’s office undertook damage control efforts, they soon made the situation far worse than they had found it.
State police had found a wealth of evidence of Farak’s pilfering stashed in her car, but prosecutors working to unravel the extent of damage Farak had done nevertheless falsely claimed it had no relevance to defendants seeking review of their cases or convictions. The attorney general’s office also tried to put the damning information under seal, and inaccurately told judges they had provided courts all relevant the evidence.
Those missteps drew angry rulings from the judges who discovered they had been misled, using terms like “fraud on the court.” Withholding exculpatory evidence from defendants is prosecutorial misconduct; withholding it from judges will likely separate you from your job; before long the two offending prosecutors became ex-prosecutors.
As bad as the Farak scandal turned out to be, it could have been worse – and in fact, it recently was. Similar falsified reports and evidence tampering by Annie Dookhan, another chemist in a different state drug-testing lab, drew a stern review by the state’s highest court, and resulted in the dismissal of about 21,500 other drug cases in the spring of this year. (There was also another scandal, related to a cover-up of untrustworthy DUI testing, so all in all, 2017 was not a very good year for Bay State drug labs and their chemists, or for prosecutors).