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State high court to review case of Amherst chemist

  • Sonja Farak of Northampton, a former chemist at the state crime lab in Amherst, appears before Hampshire Superior Court Judge C. Jeffrey Kinder in Northampton. Gazette file Photo



For The Recorder
Thursday, February 08, 2018

The state’s top court is set to meet later this month to review the next steps in a case sparked by the misconduct of a former chemist who authorities say was high almost every day she worked for eight years at a state drug lab in Amherst.

A hearing is scheduled at 11 a.m. on Feb. 22 before Justice Frank M. Gaziano to discuss the status of a suit brought by the Committee for Public Counsel Services, the Hampden County Lawyers for Justice Inc. and two citizens against the state’s attorney general and nearly a dozen district attorneys offices across the state. The suit seeks to have the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court dismiss all cases tainted by Sonja Farak.

Prosecutors already have agreed to dismiss about 8,000 convictions tainted by Farak, who pleaded guilty in 2014 to stealing drugs and tampering with evidence during her time at the Department of Public Health laboratory in Amherst.

Of those roughly 8,000 cases, 1,497 convictions were dismissed in November by the Northwestern District Attorney’s Office. The cases represent drug convictions between 2004 and 2012 that were based on certificates of analysis signed by Farak. Around the same time, the Hampden district attorney’s office also said it would dismiss about 3,940 district and juvenile convictions involving drug samples tied to Farak.

The Supreme Judicial Court will now decide whether prosecutors have to dismiss additional cases tied to Farak. The court also will consider whether all cases that passed through the drug lab during Farak’s employment should be re-examined, even if she didn’t work on them. During investigations into Farak’s misconduct it was learned that the lab was severely underfunded and had few security measures in place.

The drug lab in Amherst handled samples primarily from western Massachusetts police departments but also tested samples that had been diverted from the Hinton/Jamaica Plain lab in an effort to decrease a backlog. The Amherst lab was shuttered in 2013 after news broke of Farak’s drug thefts.

Farak’s case is separate from another Massachusetts drug lab scandal that resulted in an unprecedented dismissal of roughly 21,000 convictions last year. Those cases were tainted by Annie Dookhan, a drug chemist for the state lab in Jamaica Plain who was arrested in 2012 and convicted of tampering with evidence. Dookhan had been found to be “dry-labbing,” or identifying samples by sight without actually testing them to boost her work production and impress her superiors.

The handling of the Farak investigation drew ire from at least one superior court judge who blasted not only Farak but also the state attorney general’s office. In a 127-page ruling issued last summer, Judge Richard Carey said one former assistant attorney general intentionally misrepresented facts and deliberately misled defense lawyers, prosecutors and the court. Another assistant attorney general, the judge said, “lacked a moral compass.” He wrote that the two prosecutors committed a “fraud upon the court.”