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More cases connected to Sonja Farak’s drug lab work expected to be dropped

Sonja Farak during her arraignment at Eastern Hampshire District Court in Belchertown in 2013. Farak, a chemist, was later convicted of stealing drugs from the state lab in Amherst. She tested nearly 10,000 drug samples at the William A. Hinton lab in Jamaica Plain, according to state records.
Sonja Farak during her arraignment at Eastern Hampshire District Court in Belchertown in 2013. Farak, a chemist, was later convicted of stealing drugs from the state lab in Amherst. She tested nearly 10,000 drug samples at the William A. Hinton lab in Jamaica Plain, according to state records.Don Treeger/Springfield Union News via AP/file

Hundreds of additional Massachusetts drug lab scandal cases are being dismissed, contributing to the 35,000 convictions already thrown out, due to remaining questions about the reliability of tests performed by Sonja Farak while she worked as a chemist at the William A. Hinton laboratory in Jamaica Plain.

“No one wants to use bad evidence,” said Norfolk County District Attorney Michael W. Morrissey, who said his office plans to dismiss at least 200 cases by the end of the year.

“At some point, the costs of litigation, tying up the resources of the Commonwealth and the liberty interests of the defendants have to factor in here,” said Morrissey. The district attorney said he has proposed the issue be discussed among prosecutors at their regular monthly meeting Wednesday.

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Farak, who was convicted of stealing drugs from the state lab in Amherst in 2014, had tested nearly 10,000 drug samples at the Hinton lab, including 650 involved in Norfolk County cases, according to state records. She and her Hinton colleague Annie Dookhan, who was accused in a similar case and convicted in 2013, served less than seven years in prison for stealing or tampering with drug case evidence at the Amherst and Jamaica Plain labs.

Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins said her office also has been working on dismissals of cases Farak was involved with “for some time” but declined to provide the number. Farak had tested 3,189 drug samples for Suffolk County, according to state records.

“This was a massive failure,” Rollins said. “There comes a point where we have to take responsibility.”

Farak worked at Hinton from 2002 to 2004 before moving to the state drug lab in Amherst. When she was working at Hinton, her drug abuse was in full throttle, a Superior Court judge found in 2017.

“During that 16-month period, she continued and perhaps increased her consumption of alcohol and recreational drugs, including MDMA and marijuana, and she first tried methamphetamine,” wrote Judge J. Richard Carey in his decision then castigating prosecutors for withholding evidence in Amherst cases.

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Several Massachusetts judges have ruled the state had a constitutional obligation once they knew Farak was using drugs at the Amherst lab to also scrutinize her work at Hinton, which had led to thousands of convictions.

“The absence of a proper investigation here should not stand,” noted Superior Court Judge Michael D. Ricciuti in an April ruling in which a defendant challenged his heroin possession conviction based on the lack of a state investigation into Farak’s Hinton tests.

Rucciuti found the state failed to specifically probe Farak’s work at the Jamaica Plain facility even though “the current record supports the conclusion that, at a minimum, Farak was using drugs while at the Hinton lab.”

And in April 2015, the Supreme Judicial Court wrote in another case challenging Farak’s work in Amherst: "When personnel at the Amherst drug lab notified the State police in January, 2013, that Farak may have compromised the evidence in two drug cases, the Commonwealth had a duty to conduct a thorough investigation to determine the nature and extent of her misconduct, and its effect both on pending cases and on cases in which defendants already had been convicted of crimes involving controlled substances that Farak had analyzed.

Morrissey and Rollins had both said their decision to dismiss cases in which Farak tested drugs at Hinton were underway when Middlesex District Attorney Marian T. Ryan sent a scathing letter last month to top state officials, including the governor.

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In that Sept. 25 letter, Ryan requested further investigation into Farak’s work unless the inspector general could explain how he determined in 2014 that Dookhan was the “sole bad actor” at Hinton. The inspector general’s office spent 15 months and $6.2 million in public funds examining lab operations before releasing its 2014 report.

Ryan wrote in her letter that “a cloud of doubt” hovers over the the inspector general’s probe and Farak’s Hinton work.

Inspector General Glen A. Cunha acknowledged in a September 2019 court filing that his office had not conducted “an in-depth investigation specifically into the actions of Farak or any other individual” at Hinton.

Cunha has declined requests to comment, including about how he responded to a 2013 e-mail to his staff from a former FBI official hired to assist with the investigation.

Michael J. Wolf, a Connecticut-based forensic scientist and former FBI assistant director, recommended in an April 2013 e-mail to a lawyer in Cunha’s office that in addition to Dookhan, the work of seven other chemists, including Farak, should be scrutinized because of their high testing numbers. The inspector general disclosed the e-mails in June following a court order requiring their release.

Wolf declined to comment when reached by phone on Oct. 8.

Cunha accused Ryan earlier this month of grandstanding and exaggerating Farak’s Hinton case numbers and restated his office’s conclusion that Dookhan was the only problem chemist at Hinton.

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“The Hinton Lab investigation did not uncover any evidence to question Farak’s productivity or suspect her of misconduct,” Cunha wrote in the letter obtained by the Globe.

Relying on the inspector general’s finding, Middlesex County prosecutors have spent the past two years fighting to preserve the conviction of Eugene Sutton, which was based on possessing .04 of a gram of Farak-tested narcotics.

“For this amount of controlled substance, it has been a very large amount of resources,” Ryan said in an interview earlier this month.

Ryan’s office dropped the Sutton case on Oct. 7 in part because of questions surrounding the inspector general’s investigation of Hinton.

Other Farak defendants have filed similar challenges raising constitutional objections about their convictions based on the state’s apparent failure to investigate her at Hinton.

Prosecutors want to avoid the time-consuming, piecemeal litigation that such challenges present, Morrissey said.

The questions about Farak’s Hinton work have resulted in a split among some prosecutors about the caliber of the inspector general’s investigation and the chemist’s work at that lab.

Farak had tested 1,123 samples for Essex County cases but a spokeswoman for District Attorney Jonathan W. Blodgett said his office was not planning any action regarding her work.

“DA Blodgett does not take issue with the Inspector General’s investigation and will not be taking any further action at this time,” said Carrie Kimball in an Oct. 20 statement.

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The district attorney In Plymouth County, for whom Farak performed 1,055 tests, also said his office would not take any further action. But spokeswoman Beth Stone added in an e-mail last Wednesday that the district attorney was “open to any and all new information, and will take all appropriate steps up to and including dismissal if needed.”

But attorney James P. McKenna, who represents Sutton and another defendant challenging his Middlesex conviction, applauded the recent dismissals.

“It is tremendous that they are standing up for the rights of defendants even though it took a little while to get here,” McKenna said. “We now have a better grasp of the truth — that there was no investigation of Farak at Hinton.”