A Rare Victory for Transparency. Massachusetts Could Use Many More.
This op-ed was originally published at WGBH.org.
COVID-19 has taught us all about the importance of vaccines. When it comes to government, as Bono put it, “we know that the biggest disease of all is not a disease. It’s corruption. But there’s a vaccine for that too. It’s called transparency.”
Massachusetts is in the midst of wrongdoing on an unprecedented scale. Thousands of convictions had to be vacated because of the corruption of state drug laboratory chemists. Thousands more convictions were vacated because of the combined misconduct of the chemists and prosecutors. And still more will be vacated because of the Commonwealth’s repeated and deliberate failures to investigate the extent to which its evidence was compromised.
The good news is that our system is now working and we have made inexorable progress towards the truth. That progress has relied on equal parts of transparency and rectitude on the part of the courts.
In 2012, the misconduct of Annie Dookhan at the Commonwealth’s Boston (Hinton) laboratory became evident; in 2013 we learned about a second unethical chemist named Sonja Farak in the Amherst laboratory. That same year, the Office of the Attorney General began, but then ended, an investigation into the scope of Farak’s misconduct.
In 2014, the Office of the Inspector General (IG) announced that, following an investigation, it had determined that Dookhan had been the sole bad actor at the Hinton laboratory. All concerned assumed that, before reaching that determination, the IG must have looked into whether other chemists had functioned as bad actors.
It would take five years – during which courts would consistently choose transparency over the Office of the Inspector General’s claims of secrecy – but in 2019 the IG conceded that it hadn’t investigated any Hinton chemists besides Dookhan.
Back in 2015, the Supreme Judicial Court wrote about the constitutional imperative that the Commonwealth investigate the nature and extent of Farak’s impairment of the integrity of its evidence. The Office of the Attorney General then resumed its investigation of Farak but, inexcusably, never conducted an inquiry into her conduct while at the Hinton laboratory. (While there, Farak appears to have engaged in the same misconduct as Dookhan).
Last year, Superior Court Judge Michael D. Ricciuti found that the failure to investigate Farak’s work at the Hinton laboratory means justice was not done. That finding created a precedent that will lead to new trials for the thousands whose convictions rest upon the integrity of test results reported by Farak.
Last month, Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins took justice a stride further, boldly declaring that none of the Suffolk County convictions that rest upon the integrity of the evidence at the Hinton laboratory during the Dookhan/Farak era should stand. As a result, thousands of new trials will be granted.
Given that access to justice should never be zip-code-dependent, we can expect that, eventually, all convictions grounded upon the integrity of Hinton laboratory evidence will be vacated. At that point, the corrosive cloud over the integrity of our system of justice will lift.
That result will be consistent with how this matter has gone since its beginning. Those acting with rectitude – the courts and now leading district attorneys – have consistently done the right thing. That, along with transparency, is the cure for corruption.
Jim McKenna is defense counsel for victims of misconduct in the drug laboratories and a Senior Fellow for Law and Society at Pioneer Institute.