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Massachusetts shares blame for crime lab scandal, court says

Annie Dookhan, a former chemist at the Hinton State Laboratory Institute, listens to the judge during her arraignment at Brockton Superior C
Annie Dookhan, a former chemist at the Hinton State Laboratory Institute, listens to the judge during her arraignment at Brockton Superior C

BOSTON (Reuters) - Massachusetts' top court ruled on Wednesday that the state shares blame for thousands of drug convictions tainted by crime lab chemist Annie Dookhan, who admitted to faking test results over nearly a decade.

The ruling by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court will make it easier for people convicted in drug cases linked to Dookhan to win new trials, by removing one of the standards for reversing a guilty plea.

"We must account for the due process rights of defendants," said the ruling, written by Justice Francis Spina. "In the wake of government misconduct that has cast a shadow over the entire criminal justice system, it is most appropriate that the benefit of our remedy inure to defendants."

The ruling said that in all cases in which Dookhan was the lead or secondary chemist, defendants were entitled to a presumption that there was egregious misconduct by the state - one of the standards for overturning a guilty plea.

Chris Dearborn, a law professor at Suffolk University in Boston, said the ruling could save thousands of defendants the time and money required to litigate the point, and take pressure off the state's court system.

"This is a landmark ruling that will make it a lot easier for people to pursue these claims. Otherwise some of them would be still be in litigation 25 years from now," he said.

Dookhan last year acknowledged faking tests on evidence in drug cases involving some 40,000 people from 2002 to 2011. More than 300 people convicted of drug violations have been released from prison as a result, and many others are seeking retrials.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts said the decision was a step toward a comprehensive resolution to the drug lab cases, which it has called the biggest criminal justice scandal in the state's history.

"We hope the Court will next require prosecutors, rather than defendants, to bear the burden of ascertaining which convictions will have to be vacated in light of today's rulings," said Matthew Segal, ACLU of Massachusetts legal director.

The ruling followed a scathing report by the state's Inspector General this week that said lax management at the state-run Hinton Crime Lab allowed Dookhan to carry on her misconduct for nearly a decade.

The review found that there had been warning signs throughout Dookhan's tenure at the Boston lab, which is now closed. In her first two years on the job, she tested more than 8,000 samples a year, more than double her next-most productive colleague.

Dookhan was sentenced in November to three to five years in prison after pleading guilty to charges including tampering with evidence, obstruction of justice and perjury for falsely claiming to have a master's degree in chemistry.

(Writing by Richard Valdmanis; Editing by Tom Brown)

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