In 2013, news of a scandal broke in Massachusetts that called into question the veracity of over 40,000 criminal drug cases, reports Al Jazeera. Annie Dookhan, a chemist in a state laboratory, was responsible for processing evidence in drug cases, such as testing for cocaine and heroin, and weighing substances.
Officials later learned that she had fabricated her credentials, contaminated samples, and dry-labbed -- eyeballing evidence rather than actually testing it to determine its contents. The scandal resulted in many convictions and sentences being appealed, and earlier this month, the First Circuit had occasion to hear the first appeal stemming from, as Judge Selya calls it, Dookhan's "skullduggery."
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Larry Wilkins' Drug Conviction
Larry Wilkins' case was pretty straightforward as far as drug convictions go: he was involved in an undercover sale with much circumstantial evidence. An undercover officer saw him during the sale, and he was found in possession of crack cocaine and money used in the sale. A field test confirmed the substance was crack cocaine.
Dookhan did a small sample test -- she did not test all of the packs found on the defendant. As a result of the circumstantial evidence and Dookhan's "findings" Wilkins changed his not guilty plea to guilty. After the scandal broke, and while he was serving his sentence Wilkins collaterally attacked his conviction, seeking to vacate the conviction and his guilty plea.
First Circuit Analysis
The district court denied his petition, but granted a certificate of appealability. To determine whether to vacate Wilkins' plea due to newly discovered evidence, the court had to determine whether (1) there was "egregiously impermissible conduct," and (2) whether the conduct was "material" to Wilkins' decision to plead guilty.
The court sidestepped the messiness of the Dookhan issue by not addressing the first prong. Instead, the court found "Dookhan bears no relationship to this mass of circumstantial evidence." Furthermore, new tests on previously un-tested samples confirmed the presence of crack cocaine. Since Wilkins could not prove materiality, it did not address the first factor.
First Circuit's Admonition
The First Circuit intentionally circumvented the first factor of the test, and stated, "We write without attempting to lay down any broad rule to govern all Dookhan-related cases." By definitively limiting its holding to the facts of the present case, the court was careful to not create any dangerous precedent for the onslaught of appeals that are sure to follow.
- ACLU Urges Mass. High Court to Dismiss All Annie Dookhan Cases (Findlaw's U.S. First Circuit Blog)
- MA Crime Lab Scandal Centers on Tampered Evidence (Findlaw's Blotter)
- Drug Convict to 1st Cir: Didn't Understand 'Intent' In Plea (Findlaw's U.S. First Circuit Blog)