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ACLU calls for thousands more tainted drug cases to be dismissed

"The Amherst drug lab crisis represents a complete collapse of the criminal justice system," reads a petition submitted to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court by attorneys from the American Civil Liberties Union, the Committee for Public Counsel Services' Public Defender Division, Hampden County Lawyers for Justice, and the law firm of Fick & Marx, LLP.

The high court has already dismissed 20,000 drug convictions that were tainted by evidence-tampering and other misconduct by a former state chemist. The chemist pled guilty in 2014 to stealing cocaine she was meant to be testing. According to the new petition, the chemist was also under the influence of various drugs on a nearly daily basis between August 2004 and January 2013.

The petition was filed on behalf of two people who were convicted of drug crimes based on the tainted evidence. They claim they were never notified by prosecutors that the validity of the evidence against them was in question. They therefore lost the opportunity to seek post-conviction relief.

The petitioners want all cases in which evidence was handled by the disgraced chemist to be dismissed with prejudice, which means the cases could not be retried. They want their convictions overturned.

Petitioners: This is not just about one or two bad apples

"By tampering with evidence, stealing samples, and abusing drugs while working in the Amherst lab, [the chemist] impaired her ability to analyze samples, maintain the lab's equipment, and testify in court," according to the petition. In every case the chemist was involved in, the evidence would have been tainted.

The petitioners also claim that the Attorney General's Office intentionally hid the true scope of the misconduct and have tried to write off the scandal as the work of a single "bad apple." This is despite a previous misconduct scandal involving a chemist at the Hinton State Laboratory and evidence of prosecutorial misconduct.

"To leave 'no doubt that such conduct will not be tolerated in our criminal justice system,' this court should dismiss with prejudice the wrongful convictions of all [such] defendants," reads the petition.

Prosecutors are supposed to win their cases based on evidence that is legitimate and legally obtained. They are not supposed to try to win at all costs, but to seek justice. When a state employee has demonstrably violated the law and tainted the evidence, the only reasonable solution is for that evidence to be thrown out. After a scandal of this magnitude, every affected defendant should be given the benefit of the doubt.

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