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Massachusetts Prosecutors Move To Dismiss Thousands Of Tainted Drug Cases


More than 20,000 criminal cases are being dismissed in Massachusetts. The dismissals end a chapter in the state's 2012 drug lab scandal when a lab technician was found to have falsified thousands of test results. The dismissals come amid a national debate about oversight of labs that test evidence in criminal cases. From member station WBUR, Deborah Becker reports.

DEBORAH BECKER, BYLINE: Massachusetts prosecutors made it official yesterday. They will dismiss most of the 24,000 cases that were based on drug evidence tested by former chemist Annie Dookhan. She finished serving a three-year prison sentence last year after she admitted to falsifying thousands of tests that were used as evidence in criminal cases. Carl Williams, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union in Massachusetts, says her bad testing affected people in myriad ways.

CARL WILLIAMS: Some people who have been deported, some people who've lost their jobs, the ability to drive cars - we think this is a victory for freedom, justice.

BECKER: The district attorney for Cape Cod and the Islands, Michael O'Keefe, says his office will dismiss about 1,000 cases, half of which he says are minor.

MICHAEL O'KEEFE: We should keep in mind that we're not dealing with actual innocents here. We're dealing with drug defendants, the overwhelming majority of whom pled guilty.

BECKER: But defense attorneys say many people only pled guilty because they couldn't argue with scientific tests that are now known to have been fraudulent. Massachusetts' highest court will now formally order the cases dismissed, and then those accused will be notified in writing. Many of them are eager to find out what will happen with their case.

ANGEL: I'm definitely going to get in touch with an attorney. I'm going to definitely look into it because I know something's there. I know there is.

BECKER: Thirty-year-old Angel, who didn't want his last name used in case this charge is dismissed, says Dookhan tested the drug evidence in his case, and that resulted in a three-year prison sentence for drug distribution. Angel says that conviction has affected his life in many ways.

ANGEL: Getting a job or housing or - there's no way I can ever apply for Section 8 or any kind of housing without them shooting my down because of my criminal history.

BECKER: After state police uncovered the problem at the now closed lab back in 2012, the state set up special court sessions and hired investigators and released hundreds of people from prison. No one is still believed to be incarcerated based on the faulty tests. The scandal also got the attention of national forensic scientists.

SUZANNE BELL: It's clearly stunning.

BECKER: Suzanne Bell is a professor at West Virginia University who served on the National Commission of Forensic Science which was set up after the scandal to improve testing of evidence around the country.

BELL: The number of cases is mind-boggling, and the consequences are going to be far-reaching. It certainly is - shows the importance of accreditation of laboratories.

BECKER: A 2014 survey of publicly funded forensic labs indicates that 88 percent of those that responded are accredited. But Bell is concerned that future reforms might stall because the Justice Department dissolved the commission just last week.

In Massachusetts, many are calling for the creation of a new, independent state agency to oversee labs. They point to a second drug lab scandal in the state where thousands more drug cases might be compromised. For NPR News, I'm Deborah Becker in Boston.

(SOUNDBITE OF MANU DELAGO SONG, "BIGGER THAN HOME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Deborah Becker