Drug defendants splitting $14M in state lab scandal settlement

  • 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 on Monday, April 24, 2013, for her arraignment. Gazette file photo

State House News Service
Monday, June 20, 2022

Roughly 31,000 defendants who had criminal convictions vacated in the wake of a massive state drug lab scandal are poised to split about $14 million in settlement payments under a new agreement between their lawyers and Attorney General Maura Healey.

Healey’s team and attorneys representing defendants whose convictions were based in part on now-discredited evidence produced by a pair of disgraced state chemists, including a Northampton woman who worked at the state drug lab in Amherst, filed a proposed settlement Wednesday that would require Massachusetts to reimburse legal costs tied to convictions lifted in connection with wrongdoing by the state chemists.

Each person who qualifies under the class-action settlement, which still needs to be approved by a judge, would receive a minimum of $150. Some could get more than $1,000 after paying that much in fees for probation, parole, GPS monitoring, drug analysis, and other conviction-associated costs.

The settlement agreement calls for creating a standalone account overseen by a third-party administrator. Refund amounts will be based on Trial Court, State Police, Parole Board and Registry of Motor Vehicles records. Any defendant covered by the class-action lawsuit who still has a conviction in place would also receive a 50% discount to their Trial Court payments.

State government would also pay an additional $1.4 million to the attorneys representing former defendants who brought the class-action lawsuit. The agreement punctuates years of work to resolve a scandal that rocked the justice system starting a decade ago. Former state chemist Sonja Farak pleaded guilty in 2014 to tampering with evidence in connection with her own drug addiction and stealing drugs from an Amherst lab.

Fellow former state chemist Annie Dookhan, who worked at a drug lab in Hinton, pleaded guilty a year earlier to charges stemming from a lengthy pattern of falsifying drug analyses used as evidence in criminal cases.

“Annie Dookhan and Sonja Farak’s crimes undermined the integrity of our justice system and impacted thousands of lives,” Healey said in a statement.

“From the start, we have recognized that defendants with vacated convictions should be refunded and are pleased to have engaged in a collaborative effort to reach a fair and efficient resolution for all involved.”

Between 2017 and 2019, the Supreme Judicial Court vacated the convictions of roughly 33,000 defendants in cases where Dookhan or Farak participated and ordered that they could not be prosecuted again for the same events.

Under a 2017 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, if a state lifts a conviction and prevents it from being pursued again, the state must reimburse defendants for all money they paid as a result of the conviction.

Following the unprecedented dismissal of criminal convictions, some former defendants and state officials engaged in what both parties described in a legal memo as “regular, productive discussions” about reimbursing conviction-related costs.

The four class representatives filed their class-action suit in 2019.

Both parties agreed that 10 different categories of charges and other payments would not have been imposed if not for the now-vacated convictions: victim-witness fees, probation fees, post-conviction GPS monitoring fees, restitution, court costs, Chapter 94C fines, drug analysis criminal assessment fees, DNA collection fees, parole fees, and fees to get a driver’s license reinstated.

“Shifting costs to ‘users’ of the criminal legal system creates extraordinary hardships for defendants and their families,” said Luke Ryan, a Northampton attorney representing the class.

“We are hopeful that in addition to returning money to class members, this case will cause elected officials to see the wisdom of recent proposals to end the practice of treating the most financially insecure among us as a source of revenue,” Ryan said.