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Payouts slow to come in drug lab settlement

Little accounting in place to track fees paid by wronged defendants

Zack Huffman

It may be a new year, but tens of thousands of individuals wrongfully convicted on drug charges in Massachusetts with tampered evidence are still waiting for payments from the state as part of a court settlement approved two months ago.

“The feedback I’ve gotten is that people haven’t gotten their check yet, and they’re understandably anxious to receive compensation,” said Luke Ryan, an attorney with Sasson Turnbull Ryan & Hoose who has been actively involved in the effort to find justice for families caught up in the state drug lab scandal from a decade ago.

Anatomy of a disaster

In the 2010s, two separate scandals were uncovered in the state’s drug labs, which is where substances assumed to be drugs by arresting officers are tested to confirm that arrestees were actually holding drugs. The scandals, involving chemists Annie Dookhan and Sonja Farak, both involved tampering with or fabricating drug evidence, casting tens of thousands of convictions into doubt.

Most of those convictions have since been vacated, but despite having clean(er) records, those folks have yet to be reimbursed for the court fees and processing costs associated with their wrongful convictions. The fees included victim-witness fees, probation fees, parole fees, DNA collection fees, drug analysis criminal assessment fees and driver’s license reinstatement fees. There is a standing court order calling for those refunds, but the same people who fell victim to tainted prosecutions are still waiting for their reimbursement checks.

Dookhan, a chemist at the Hinton State Laboratory in Jamaica Plain, was arrested in September 2012 after it was discovered that she had been fudging her analyses in order to pad her test sample outputs. She reportedly produced results at five times the average of other technicians in the lab, but still, almost a decade passed before she was caught.

Meanwhile, Farak, who worked as a chemist at both the state’s Hinton and Amherst labs, was dipping into drug samples from 2005 to 2013 for her own personal use. She was caught in 2016.

Dookhan doctored drug evidence in almost 34,000 cases from 2003 to 2012 — accounting for one in six cases tried in the state during that period. More than 24,000 of those cases ended in convictions or other negative outcomes, according to the ACLU of Massachusetts, which handled appeals for these defendants.

That announcement came in 2016 and was followed by a court order to overturn those convictions in early 2017.

In December 2017, district attorneys across the state announced they would be overturning about 6,000 more convictions that relied on tainted evidence handled by Farak. Those who were impacted by the disaster had their records cleaned, but still have had to endure seemingly endless court-related costs and fees.

The settlement

On Oct. 29, 2019, a collection of Dookhan and Farak defendants sued the state in Suffolk County Superior Court seeking reimbursement for all the financial costs they endured because of their rigged cases.

“As both the U.S. Supreme Court and the SJC [Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court] have held, and as the Commonwealth has publicly acknowledged, due process requires that money paid by individuals based on their now-vacated, wrongful convictions must be returned,” according to the 16-page lawsuit.

The end result was a $14 million settlement approved by a Suffolk Superior Court judge last October.

“I think one of the many lessons in this saga is the fact that we’ve had this system in place where people decided many years ago user fees should be a big part of the court experience for those prosecuted,” said Ryan, the attorney working for affected families. “We’ve got a system in place where it’s just, ‘Grab this money from mostly poor people, but don’t have mechanisms in place to really account for what’s taken.’”

The settlement class includes more than 31,000 people, each of whom the state is required to notify with instructions for how to get their respective payment. Those individuals had to be identified and then compiled into a list that the state’s payment administrator could refer to when issuing checks. There are a lot of moving parts and an unusually large set of recipients.

“I think the delay in payment is largely a function of the large number of class members and some of the complications that have plagued this litigation with respect to record-keeping issues,” Ryan said. “I have no reason to believe that payments are not imminent.”

He added that individuals who were not notified by the state, but who still believe they may have been impacted by the actions of Farak and Dookhan, can file.

“Individuals who believe that they were erroneously excluded from the class have the right to contest that. If people are dissatisfied with the amount that they receive, they can challenge that as well, by filing a refund amount claim,” Ryan said. “These are unlikely to be life-changing sums of money, but this is money that people are owed. If the money doesn’t get distributed to class members, it’s going to go to some very worthy nonprofits, but even the nonprofits really want to see class members get everything they’re entitled to.”

The Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office did not respond to a request for comment.

This article is syndicated by the MassWire news service of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism.

Annie Dookhan, state drug lab