DISHONEST CRIME LAB ANALYSTS

In Commonwealth v. Ware, the Supreme Judicial Court affirmed the denial of the defendant’s motion for leave to conduct postconviction discovery and for funds the Massachusetts Rules of Criminal Procedure.  He filed the motion in support of his effort to procure a new trial on a 2009 indictment charging drug distribution, to which he pleaded guilty. However, the Court also remanded the case to the trial court for further proceedings. The motion to conduct postconviction discovery was based on the 2013 revelation of misconduct (including tampering with evidence) by Sonja Farak, the chemist at the state drug laboratory in Amherst who had signed the drug certificate in the defendant’s 2009 case. The defendant asserted that he tendered his guilty plea because of his understanding of the prosecution’s likelihood of success” based on the drug certificate. The focus of the defendant’s motion was to determine in the absence of a thorough investigation by the Commonwealth precisely when Farak began to engage in misconduct at the Amherst drug lab and, consequently, when she first compromised the Commonwealth’s evidence in drug cases. Specifically, the motion sought retesting of drug evidence maintained by the Springfield police department in countless cases brought by the Commonwealth between July, 2004, and January 18, 2013 (the period during which Farak worked at the Amherst lab).  The judge denied the motion, concluding that the defendant had failed to establish a prima facie case for relief.

The SJC ruled that “given the breadth of the defendant’s motion for leave to conduct postconviction discovery, … the judge did not abuse his discretion in denying the motion. The defendant made no showing that his wide-ranging request for the visual inspection of thousands of drug samples analyzed by Farak between July, 2004, and January 18, 2013, as well as for the retesting of approximately 1,700 of those samples, would be reasonably likely to uncover tainted evidence…. Nothing has been presented to suggest that Farak engaged in misconduct at the … drug lab prior to perhaps the fall of 2011, at the earliest.  Nonetheless, the magnitude and implications of Farak’s wrongdoing have not been ascertained. When personnel at the Amherst drug lab notified the State police in January, 2013, that Farak may have compromised the evidence in two drug cases, the Commonwealth had a duty to conduct a thorough investigation to determine the nature and extent of her misconduct, and its effect both on pending cases and on cases in which defendants already had been convicted of crimes involving controlled substances that Farak had analyzed.  The Court concluded that because such an investigation had not occurred, the defendant should be afforded an opportunity to conduct postconviction discovery relating to the 2009 charge…. On remand, the defendant may file a new motion for such discovery and for funds…. Such discovery may include, among other things, visual inspection and retesting of the controlled substance that was used to charge the defendant.

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