After several years of ruling on individual drug convictions possibly tainted by disgraced chemist Annie Dookhan, the Supreme Judicial Court today issued rules for dealing with the more than 20,000 remaining drug convictions she had something to do with.
Rather than continuing to hear cases on a one by one basis, foregoing any further consideration of Dookhan-related convictions or just issuing a blanket rule dismissing all the cases at once, the state's highest court directed the state's district attorneys to first conduct their own case reviews and identify cases they don't think they could win on re-trial because the case relied so heavily on certification by Dookhan that the substances used to convict people were really the drugs she said they were.
The number of cases at issue is based on lists of Dookan-related convictions compiled by the state's district attorneys at the request of the court.
After identifying the cases they wouldn't want to re-try, the DAs would then have to ask a judge to dismiss and vacate those convictions with prejudice - meaning they could not attempt to re-try the defendants.
This is essentially the standard the SJC and the Massachusetts Appeals Court have used in deciding earlier Dookhan cases: Dismissal if the justices did not think the convictions could stand up without her certification and upholding the convictions if prosecutors had enough other evidence to convict even without certification that a substance was an illegal drug.
Then, after those cases are disposed of, the remaining defendants would have to be notified their cases were not being dismissed - and given access to a state-funded public defender should they wish to consider their own individual appeals, the court ruled.
If the number seeking counsel is so large that counsel cannot be
assigned despite [the Committee for Public Counsel Service]'s best efforts, the single justice will fashion an appropriate remedy under our general superintendence authority for the constitutional violation, which may include
dismissing without prejudice the relevant drug convictions in cases where an indigent defendant is deprived of the right to counsel.
The justices continued:
The remedy we order, challenging as it is to implement, preserves the ability of these defendants to vindicate their rights through case-by-case adjudication, respects the exercise of prosecutorial discretion, and maintains the fairness and integrity of our criminal justice system in the wake of a laboratory scandal of unprecedented magnitude.