Amherst Drug Lab Scandal – Spread the Word!

Yes, innocent people get convicted of crimes they didn’t commit, and many are convicted on shoddy evidence.   That’s the case regarding the Amherst drug lab scandal, where Sonja Farak admitted to tampering with the drug evidence.  We have a chance to undo some of these harms, but only if we spread the word.

The following is a fact sheet prepared by local attorney Luke Ryan.

FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS REGARDING THE AMHERST “DRUG LAB” SCANDAL

Q. What is a “Drug Lab”?
A. In order to convict someone of possessing or distributing a controlled substance, the government must prove that that the substance at issue is an illegal drug. This is what is known as an element of the offense. A “Drug Lab” is a place where chemists test samples submitted by police departments to see if they contain controlled substances.
Q. Did the Amherst Drug Lab test samples from anywhere besides Amherst?
A. Yes. The Amherst Drug Lab tested almost all of the samples seized by local police departments in the four western counties of Massachusetts: Hampden, Hampshire, Franklin, and Berkshire. The Amherst Drug Lab sometimes tested samples submitted to another “Drug Lab,” the Hinton Drug Lab in Jamaica Plain, when the Hinton lab had a backlog of samples waiting for testing. The Hinton lab received samples from local police departments east of Worcester.
Q. Who is Sonja Farak?
A. Sonja Farak (Farak) worked as a chemist at the Hinton lab from June, 2003 until August, 2004, and at the Amherst lab from August, 2004 until January 19, 2013, when she was arrested for crimes she committed in connection with her work at the lab. On January 6, 2014, Farak pled guilty to four counts of evidence tampering, four counts of theft of a controlled substance from a dispensary, and two counts of possessing a Class B substance. She was sentenced to 18 months in prison and is currently on probation.
Q. How long was she engaged in this criminal activity?
A. At this point, no one knows for sure. However, new evidence recently came to light strongly suggesting that she began regularly tampering with evidence and using narcotics on the job starting in 2003 or 2004.
Q. What kind of “new evidence”?
A. We have learned that, prior to her arrest, Farak received treatment for a drug addiction. In the course of receiving that treatment, she told providers when she started using drugs, what kinds of drugs she used, how often she used them, and where she got them. Her clinicians documented these disclosures in records that they later had to produce as a result of a Court order. According to these records, Farak started used methamphetamine while working at Hinton, became addicted to “uppers” during her first year in Amherst, and used them whenever she could steal them from the lab.
Q. Didn’t a Judge already find that Farak’s misconduct began at a later date?
A. Yes. In the fall of 2013, a Hampden County Superior Court Judge decided that there was no evidence that Farak’s misconduct began before July, 2012. However, the state’s highest court decided to give defendants a new hearing because the government failed to thoroughly investigate Farak’s crimes. That hearing hasn’t happened yet. When it does, the defendants will be able to argue, based on the new evidence found in Farak’s treatment records, that her misconduct began much earlier.
Q. Why does any of this matter?
A. The government has an obligation to safeguard the integrity of each substance it seizes. To prove that a person possessed or distributed an illegal substance, the government must prove that the substance seized by the police was, in fact, that illegal substance. (There are a number of substances that look like cocaine, heroin, or marijuana, but are actually legal to possess.) If Farak tampered with a sample, attempted to test it while under the influence of a narcotic, or neglected to test it all, any persons convicted of possessing or distributing that substance might have legal grounds to vacate the convictions. It’s also possible that people might be able to vacate their Farak-involved convictions without risk of additional punishment.
Q. How many samples did Farak tamper with?
A. Nobody knows. During her career as a chemist, Farak was assigned over 29,000 samples. That’s how many times she signed her name to a so-called “drug cert.” If a determination is made that she started tampering with evidence at the start of her career and it’s impossible to determine which samples she misused or failed to test appropriately, the Court could decide to presume that she tampered with every single one of them.
Q. Has anything like that ever happened before?
A. Yes. In March, 2014, the state’s highest court decided to presume that a Hinton Drug Lab chemist named Annie Dookhan (Dookhan) engaged in misconduct in relation to each of the 70,000 samples she tested and signed the certificate of analysis – the drug cert.
Q. What did Dookhan do?
A. She admitted to a number of different kinds of misconduct, including “dry-labbing.” That’s what it’s called when a chemist looks at a sample and decides it contains a controlled substance without doing any actual testing. She also tampered with some samples – turning samples that tested negative for controlled substances to positive, lied about her credentials and forged the signatures of other lab employees.
Q. What has happened to “Dookhan defendants”?
A. When Dookhan’s misconduct came to light in August, 2012, the government spent a lot of time and money identifying the defendants potentially impacted and assigning attorneys to represent the ones who could not afford to hire attorneys. About a year later, they came up with a list of about 40,000 people who had cases where Dookhan had signed the drug cert. It is estimated that 20,000 – 30,000 of these people were either convicted or admitted that there were facts sufficient to find them guilty. So far, only about 8,000 of these defendants have representation. Some have managed to get new trials or withdraw their pleas. Some cases have been dismissed and other defendants have been able to renegotiate their pleas to get better sentences.
Q. Was Farak’s tampering limited to the samples assigned to her for testing?
A. Again, no one knows. However, based on the overall evidence, it seems unlikely. For example, one of the samples she was convicted of stealing had not been assigned to anyone. Investigators found a piece of scrap paper in Farak’s car with the initials of another chemist named Rebecca Pontes (Pontes) scribbled over it. One of the State Troopers who made this discovery testified that it appeared to him that Farak was practicing how to forge the initials of a fellow chemist.
Q. How many samples were assigned to Pontes for testing?
A. During the time they she worked with Farak in Amherst, Pontes was assigned over 25,000 samples. Their supervisor, James Hanchett, also did some testing, though at this point it’s unclear how much. This is important because, in Farak’s car at the time of her arrest, there were some empty evidence bags containing the initials “JH.”
Q. If a Court decides to presume that Farak engaged in misconduct, would that automatically invalidate a person’s conviction?
A. No. At least for now, there is a second decision that a judge has to make depending upon whether the defendant was convicted after a trial or pled guilty or admitted there were sufficient facts to be found guilty.
Q. What’s the second decision a judge has to make in cases that went to trial?
A. A judge would have to decide whether evidence that a chemist involved with the case was tampering with samples and using narcotics on the job would have been a real factor in the jury’s deliberation. If the judge reaches this conclusion, the defendant gets a new trial.
Q. What about in cases where there was a plea?
A. In these cases, a judge has to decide whether it’s reasonably probable that defendants would have not pled guilty or admitted to sufficient facts had they known what Farak was up to. If a judge reaches this conclusion, the defendant gets to withdraw the plea.
Q. If a defendant gets a new trial or is allowed to withdraw a plea, is it possible he or she will get a harsher sentence or additional punishment?
A. For “Dookhan defendants” who pled guilty, the answer is no. The state’s highest Court ruled in May that these Dookhan defendants can’t be re-charged with crimes that were dismissed in exchange for their pleas and they can’t receive worse sentences if they plead guilty again or go to trial and are found guilty. For “Farak defendants,” the answer is probably not. The same logic would seem to apply, but the Court has not yet had a chance to apply it.
Q. How can I find out if Farak’s name is on the drug cert in my case?
A. If you have a copy of your file, you can look yourself. If you don’t, you can call the lawyer who represented you when you went to trial or pleaded guilty and ask for a copy. If you don’t know the name of that lawyer or the lawyer is no longer practicing, you can call 617-516-5832. This is a Drug Lab Hotline operated by the Committee for Public Counsel Services (CPCS – the Massachusetts public defender agency). When you make this call, you can ask that your original lawyer be re-appointed to represent you or, if that’s not possible, that a new lawyer be assigned. Once a lawyer gets appointed to represent you, he or she can contact the District Attorney’s Office and provide details regarding your case that will allow law enforcement to search for the drug cert. Once your attorney has the drug cert in your case, he or she will collect other information, evaluate your case and advise you of your options.
Q. Is there any reason to look into this if I have already served a prison sentence?
A. Absolutely. Drug convictions often result in defendants being placed on probation or parole. Successfully challenging a conviction could lead to an early end to supervision and the possibility of returning to prison on a probation or parole violation. There are also a number of civil or collateral consequences that arise out of a drug conviction. Housing, employment, public benefits, immigration status, education, driver’s licenses, and many other aspects of an individual’s life may be negatively affected by a drug conviction. As a practical matter, where convictions are old and involve minor offenses, it is more likely that the government will agree that the conviction can be vacated. In these cases the government might decide that it doesn’t make sense to expend scarce resources fighting motions to vacate.