20,000 Drug Cases Could be Dismissed Because of Chemist’s Wrongdoing
A Massachusetts chemist who faked over 20,000 thousand drug analyses ruined countless lives says Carl Williams of the ACLU
KIM BROWN: Welcome to The Real News Network in Baltimore. I’m Kim Brown.
In what is proving to be a landmark decision in Massachusetts, more than 20,000 drug convictions are said to be dismissed, because of misconduct by a former crime lab chemist. Hundreds of convictions are expected to be vacated. So, how does this jibe with the harsh law and order rhetoric coming from the Trump administration, about doubling down on the failed war on drugs, and a return to federal policies of mass incarceration?
Well, today we’re joined with Carl Williams. Carl’s an attorney with the ACLU of Massachusetts, who has been an active player in working on this case. He is on the line today from Boston.
Carl, thank you so much for being here.
CARL WILLIAMS: Thanks for having me.
KIM BROWN: So first, let’s start with the facts of this, and how it centers around Annie Dookhan, who is a chemist who was convicted in 2013 of 27 counts, including perjury, tampering with evidence, and obstruction of justice. What was she accused of doing?
CARL WILLIAMS: So, she actually did a number of things. One she did a thing called dry labbing. And that is, instead of chemically testing, in a process called GCMS, testing substances that were suspected to be drugs, what she did is she looked at it and said, “Well, this looks like it’s packaged like heroin. It’s probably heroin. This looks like cocaine, it’s probably cocaine.” That was one thing she did.
She also added weight to drug samples. When something was maybe 98 grams and a 100 grams might trigger a very severe mandatory minimum, she said, “Well, it would be better if it was a 100 grams. I’m going to add some weight to that.” So, she added weight, she dry labbed, she also tainted evidence. That is, I would say, you know, she put some of the salt in the pepper. She sometimes put cocaine into a sample, and it tested positive for cocaine.
She also lied about her resume, she said she had a Masters degree, she didn’t. She also, about all of these things, obviously never testified on the stand that she dry labbed, added weight, lied about her resume. So, when she was on the stand testifying in drug cases, she was perjuring herself. So, a number of these things were happening throughout her tenure, for about eight years.
KIM BROWN: Wow, that really puts me in the mindset of an old rap lyric by the Geto Boys, from Willie D, when he said, he thought he had ‘caine, but it was Gold Medal flour. I mean, you can really eyeball drugs, especially in the context of a criminal action. So, how was this misconduct initially discovered?
CARL WILLIAMS: I want to go back to a previous point. I thought you were going to say, “I’d rather be tried by 12 than to be carried by six.” But, I digress.
KIM BROWN: Also a good Geto Boys lyric.
CARL WILLIAMS: I just had to bring that in there. So, I’m sorry you had a real question and I diverted.
KIM BROWN: It’s all right. So, how was Annie’s misconduct initially discovered? How did you even find out that she was not doing her job properly?
She was referred to as a superwoman by her co-workers, because of how fast she worked, according to the New York Times.
CARL WILLIAMS: Right. Well, how fast she didn’t test drugs, which, if I was not writing briefs, or if I was not litigating cases, I could get them done really fast. So, there was a reshuffling of the state drug lab. And it was going to come under the administration of the state police. When that happened, a lot of things started coming forward that had been hidden.
KIM BROWN: So, Carl, exactly how many people were impacted by this, and how many people actually went to jail?
CARL WILLIAMS: It’s hard to know the exact number of the people that went to jail. We do know that just over 24,000 people had adverse dispositions. That means they were found guilty, they were put in jail, they got probation, they went to state prison, something of that happened. But, if you say how many people were impacted, I mean, some people were deported from the country because of these cases. Many, many people lost their licenses. Many people’s mother, grandmother, father, brother were kicked out of public housing because of these. People didn’t get student loans, people couldn’t get jobs, people couldn’t get barber’s licenses.
So, there are a lot of collateral consequences that these cases affected people’s lives also. And I should say, of the 24,000 cases that Annie Dookhan signed a certificate on, 60% of those cases were simple possession of drugs. So, we’re talking about people who just possessed drugs — not who sold them, not who distributed them, manufactured them, trafficked them — just possessed them. And 90% of these cases were cases that were heard in our lower courts.
They’re not the very, very serious drug cases. They’re people who possessed small amounts, they were charged with misdemeanors, or lower level felonies. So, when these district attorneys come and say, “Oh, these were the worst of the worst. Folks, these are dangerous criminals.” The facts and the statistics belie that.
KIM BROWN: Yes, a spokesperson for the Suffolk County District Attorney was quoted in the New York Times, as saying that these weren’t wrongful convictions, that they could actually have been looked at again in the courts, based on procedural error. So, I know the ACLU of Massachusetts represented a number of people who were impacted by this.
Could you give us an example, an anecdotal example, of someone’s life that was adversely impacted by this individual’s misconduct?
CARL WILLIAMS: Sure. I’ll tell you a case of, when I was a Public Defender — and not to give you specifics, not to disturb the person’s privacy — but I had a client that, someone who worked at a bank, right? She had a boyfriend who did, and sold drugs. When he would get pulled over, he wasn’t the nicest guy in the world; he would basically make her hold the drugs.
Is that a good decision on her part? Probably not, but did she lose her job because when that case was being prosecuted against her, yes she lost her job. Did she have trouble finding a job because she had an open case? Yes, she had trouble finding a job ’cause she had an open case. Did she struggle with that for many years afterwards, ’cause this happened quite a long time ago, and is that something that affects her life, in some ways, until today? Yeah, it is. Is she one of the people whose case should have been dismissed, is going to be dismissed? Yes, she is.
And the idea, that talking about whether people are guilty or innocent, or whether these are wrongful convictions, our Supreme Judicial Court said this was egregious government misconduct. So, for district attorneys, or district attorney’s spokespeople to say something different, this is egregious government misconduct.
And I’ll say I learned something that, it’s not a law, but it’s a rule, and I learned it in kindergarten, I think a lot of us learned it, you don’t get to cheat and win. You don’t get to play not by the rules and then, you know, go home with the trophy. Right? So, the D.A.s are saying, “We should be able to keep these convictions.” Or, “You know, it’s wrong to get rid of these convictions.”
But, those convictions were based in fraudulent evidence. Those convictions, many of them were based, in perjury. Those convictions were based in extreme government misconduct. And if they want to prosecute cases based on facts, based, based on real evidence, have at it. Have at it.
We, in this country, are supposed to have due process. And if we have systems that subvert due process, you don’t get to put people in jail on that. You don’t get to put people in jail on probation on that. You don’t just get a do-over.
KIM BROWN: When we’re looking from the outside in, at Massachusetts, whom, over the past several years, seemingly has taken a number of steps to reform its drug laws, and criminal justice reform. Massachusetts, I believe, was one of the early leaders of decriminalization of marijuana. It is now legal in the state.
September of 2016, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court had a ruling in a case regarding a man named Jimmy Warren which, in affect said, that black men are justified in running from the police, because of long data that proves that black men are unfairly targeted and profiled by police.
Is Massachusetts really taking a pro-active way to sort of, correct the wrongs, and the mistakes, of the Criminal Justice System, and its drug policies?
CARL WILLIAMS: I think, I’m gonna flip it on you a little bit, I think the people of Massachusetts are standing up and demanding justice. And we are winning victories in that. So, there’s these people who are Dookhan defendants, who are organized, who are making statements about what’s happening to them. There’s a Facebook group, Victims of Annie Dookhan. There are people who are talking about mandatory minimums.
There are people who are challenging what has been the status quo. And that problematic policing, prosecutors using mandatory minimums, drug laws that seemingly are much more deeply affecting black and brown folks.
So, those are things that activists, organizers, civil rights groups, like the ACLU, and our allies, are working on, and have been working on. And we’ve made some victories. And there still is a long way to go, I think.
KIM BROWN: So, against the backdrop of Annie Dookhan and these 20,000 drug convictions that are expected to be dismissed. We have brand new Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Donald Trump as President, basically doubling down on the failed war on drugs, pledging to restore things. Like federal mandatory minimums, and increasing mass incarceration on a federal level.
When we see how many tens of thousands of people’s lives were impacted by the willful disregard of civil rights by this agent of the state, Miss Dookhan, versus the rhetoric that we’re hearing coming from the Trump administration, what does that make you think about?
CARL WILLIAMS: It makes me think there’s a long fight ahead. But there is a long fight behind us, right? ‘Cause we, as people of color, we, as black people in this country, have historically always struggled for freedom and we’ve always won. Right? We, at the ACLU for nearly the last 100 years have struggled for freedom, and we have many victories.
This is just another one. It might be the biggest one, in terms of criminal cases dismissed as a result of one case in history of the United States. I think, as far as we know, this is the largest dismissal of criminal cases based on one case filing, in the history of the United States of America. So, victories are happening.
So, to Jeff Sessions, I’d say, since we’re quoting hip-hop lyrics, “Hi hater. You see me.” And we’re going to fight. We’re going to fight the federal government. We were in court in the last weeks of January, my boss, Matthew Segal, the Director of ACLU of Massachusetts Legal Department, filed along with the American Immigration Lawyers’ Association, to have an emergency stay against the United States Government.
We won that within hours of them saying they were going to have this Muslim ban. That was stopped for a week. Folks in the west coast picked up the ball, some attorneys general and some ACLU affiliates, other attorneys working for justice, carried it along and we knocked down the first ban, we knocked down the second ban. We’re fighting to uphold the rule of law; we’re fighting to uphold the tenets held in the First Amendment, and the Fourth Amendment. People’s right to counsel, and people’s right to due process.
And we’re winning those things, because the people of this country understand that some of the stated policies of the Attorney General, and the stated policies of the President of the United States, are not in line with civil liberties, human rights, and basic tenets of freedom.
KIM BROWN: We’ve been speaking with Carl Williams. He is an attorney with the ACLU of Massachusetts. He has been actively working on behalf of what they have called, “The Dookhan Defendants”. Tens of thousands of people who have been impacted by the actions of now convicted former chemist Annie Dookhan, who was charged and convicted in 2013 of a number of offences, including tampering with evidence. And this is a landmark case. In which lots of people’s lives will be impacted.
So, Carl, we appreciate you joining us today. Thank you very much.
CARL WILLIAMS: Thank you guys. Keep up the fight.
KIM BROWN: Thank you. And we appreciate you watching and supporting The Real News Network.