In April, prosecutors in seven Massachusetts counties announced their intent to dismiss more than 20,000 convictions tainted by the misdeeds of Annie Dookhan, the former state chemist who falsified drug tests and neglected protocols in the Jamaica Plain crime lab. In the coming weeks, the affected defendants will receive notification about the consequences of those vacated convictions. Although prosecutors may still decide to retry 320 “Dookhan defendants,” many of those cases will likely result in plea bargains to time served or otherwise be set aside upon further review. The upshot is that we’re now on the brink of resolving a scandal that first came to light in 2012 — and at the perfect juncture to take stock.
Prosecutors deserve credit for engaging in the painstaking process of analyzing the merits of each affected conviction and ultimately doing the right thing. But they did so only after the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts put a figurative gun to their heads. In January, the SJC imposed a deadline for prosecutors to determine which cases they wanted to drop and which ones they envisioned retrying; that deadline expired on the day of the prosecutors’ announcement. The SJC order came on the heels of years of bitter litigation in which prosecutors often fought tooth-and-nail against dismissing the cases, even against providing robust notification to the affected defendants about their rights and remedies.
To be fair, prosecutors dropped some cases on their own initiative even before last month’s developments. Yet so many cases remained unresolved that the SJC felt compelled to act. What does it say about the prosecutorial culture in the Commonwealth when it takes the threat of extreme judicial action to persuade our district attorneys to take the step that both common sense and justice require? Dookhan’s misconduct compromised the integrity of virtually every case that came across her desk. How can one be sure a person is guilty of cocaine possession when Dookhan’s behavior makes it impossible to determine whether the seized item was in fact cocaine?
Prosecutors wield tremendous power in our criminal justice system, including the discretion to choose which criminal charges to pursue and whether to consider plea bargains. Legal commentators have long referred to American prosecutors as “ministers of justice” — powerful public figures who represent the people of the jurisdiction, not individual victims or other constituencies. As former U.S. Attorney General and Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson proclaimed, with this power comes responsibility. That responsibility encompasses an obligation to treat criminal defendants fairly. Through a combination of delay and obstinacy, our district attorneys did not fulfill this responsibility in the Dookhan situation. We should expect — and demand — more of prosecutors in the Commonwealth.