Court: Annie Dookhan did horrible things, but that's not enough to simply invalidate convictions based on her work

The Supreme Judicial Court ruled today that people seeking to overturn drug convictions based on the work of disgraced state chemist Annie Dookhan still have to prove that was the overriding reason they agreed to plead guilty.

In several rulings today, the court agreed that Dookhan's thousands of falsifications represented an "egregious" ethical and legal breach and that lawyers for defendants would not have to spend any time trying to prove that.

But as in earlier cases involving work by state chemists and technicians, the court said that by itself that doesn't mean an automatic reversal of a guilty plea or finding.

Ultimately, a defendant's decision to tender a guilty plea is a unique, individualized decision, and the relevant factors and their relative weight will differ from one case to the next. ... Moreover, a particular case may give rise to consideration of additional relevant factors not identified (in earlier cases), such as whether the defendant was indicted on additional charges and whether the drug-related charges were a minor component of an over-all plea agreement.

The court detailed its reasoning in the case of a Boston man who had originally admitted to sufficient facts to warrant a finding of guilty on possession of crack in 2011, only to have his case continued without a finding on condition he stay out of trouble for a year. When he was arrested on an assault-and-battery charge, he was also charged with violating probation for the drug charge.

Rakim Scott then moved to have the drug plea revoked, because Dookhan had certified the substance he was found with was crack. A lower-court judge agreed, but Suffolk County prosecutors appealed.

The court sent the case back to a lower court for a hearing on whether Scott's decision to admit to sufficient facts was based on factors other than Dookhan's work:

[W]e conclude that because Dookhan signed the drug certificate as an assistant analyst in Scott's case, and because Scott offered the signed drug certificate in support of his motion to withdraw his guilty plea, Scott is entitled to a conclusive presumption that Dookhan's misconduct was egregious, is attributable to the government, and occurred in his case. However, we vacate the order allowing the defendant's motion to withdraw his guilty plea, and we remand this case for findings on the question whether there is a reasonable probability that the defendant would not have pleaded guilty had he known of Dookhan's misconduct at the Hinton drug lab.

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