DECISION TO GO TO TRIAL IN LIGHT OF DOOKHAN MISCONDUCT IS FACT-INTENSIVE DETERMINATION

Commonwealth v. Williams pertains to drug tests performed by Annie Dookhan at the Hinton State Laboratory Institute, the Appeals Court “vacated … the denial of the defendant’s motions to withdraw his guilty pleas and remanded the case for further proceedings and findings in accordance with this opinion and the reasoning in Commonwealth v. Scott. , 467 Mass. 336 (2014).” The background was as follows. There were two set of indictments, charging the defendant with unrelated gun and drug crimes (designated here as “the gun case” and “the drug case”). One of the indictments in the gun case, “charging unlawful possession of a firearm, also alleged that the defendant previously had been convicted of three predicate offenses,” including drug charges in 2006 and 2007, “thus subjecting him to enhanced sentencing as an armed career criminal under G.L. c.269, §10G(c)(the ACC offense).”  The drug case consisted of three indictments, each of which included a second or subsequent offense portion identifying the defendant’s 2006 drug charges as the prior offense. Certificates of analysis showed that both the contraband in the present drug case and the contraband in the 2006 predicate case had been analyzed at the Hinton laboratory by Annie Dookhan. However, at the time of the plea hearing in 2012, Dookhan’s wrongdoing at the laboratory had not yet been revealed. At the hearing, the defendant entered guilty pleas in the gun and drug cases after “the prosecutor explained that she was willing to reduce the ACC offense from a ‘level III’ (three predicate offenses) to a ‘level II’ (two predicate offenses), thereby reducing the defendant’s” sentence. Subsequently, when the improprieties at the Hinton laboratory were revealed, “the defendant filed a motion in both the gun case and the drug case to withdraw his guilty pleas and for a new trial.” At the same time, in Brockton District Court, the defendant challenged his convictions on the 2006 and 2007 drug charges that constituted the enhancement offenses on his ACC charge, on the grounds that Dookhan had been the laboratory analyst vis-à-vis the 2006 charges and that another chemist at Hinton had analyzed the contraband underlying the 2007 charges. After a hearing, a special magistrate denied the defendant’s motions to withdraw his guilty pleas in the case at bar. But the Brockton District Court granted the defendant a new trial on the 2006 drug charges. In this appeal, the defendant argued “that reversal of one of the three original predicate offenses underlying the ACC count had rendered the 2012 plea to the reduced level II charge no ‘bargain.’ According to the defendant, the plea would have garnered him nothing, demonstrating that there is a reasonable probability that he would have refused to plead guilty and instead would have insisted on going to trial.”

In its decision, the Court of Appeals Court noted that the defendant was required to demonstrate that the revelation of Dookhan’s misconduct was material to his choice to plead guilty, i.e., that there was “‘a reasonable probability that he would not have pleaded guilty had he known of the misconduct’ and that he would have insisted on going to trial.” In the Court’s view, where the prosecution’s agreement to seek sentencing of the defendant as a level II ACC despite the existence of three predicate offenses “was the driving force behind the defendant’s plea,” the subsequent allowance of the defendant’s motion for a new trial on the 2006 drug charges (one of the two predicate offenses) due to Dookhan’s misconduct may have been material to the defendant’s decision to plead guilty. Consequently, “the defendant’s decision to plead guilty was not a correctly informed one.” “These concerns,” stated the Court, “[were] only exacerbated by the fact that the drug charges that were included in the plea in the present matter were also directly implicated by Dookhan’s misconduct.”

Ultimately, the Court concluded that the case had to be remanded to the Superior Court because “the defendant’s appeal … was premature…. Whether the defendant would have insisted on going to trial in these circumstances is a fact-intensive determination that must in the first instance be evaluated in the trial court.”

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