World
Crime Lab Scandal Forces Prosecutors to Disavow Thousands of Drug Convictions

During her career as a Massachusetts lab chemist, Annie Dookhan has admitted to making up drug test results and tampering with samples, in the process helping send scores of people to prison. Her work may have touched some 24,000 cases.

 

On April 18, nearly five years after Dookhan's confession, prosecutors submitted lists of about 21,587 tainted cases with flawed convictions that they have agreed to overturn. The state's highest court must still formally dismiss the convictions.

 

Once that happens, many of the cleared defendants will be freed from the collateral consequences that can result from drug convictions, including loss of access to government benefits, public housing, driver's licenses and federal financial aid for college. Convicted green card holders can also become eligible for deportation, and employers might deny someone a job due to a drug conviction on their record.

 

"The bad news is, it took a lot of time and litigation to get to this point. But the good news is, the courts are working really hard to make sure this relief is meaningful," said Matthew Segal, the legal director of the ACLU of Massachusetts, who helped represent some of the Dookhan defendants.

 

The state's public defender agency has opened a telephone hotline (888-999-2881) to field questions that defendants may have about their convictions and whether they were dismissed. Prosecutors have until mid-May to send notice to those whose convictions were not overturned — in about 320 cases — so that those defendants can decide whether to request a new trial. Those cases involve what prosecutors considered to be the most serious offenders, and prosecutors believe that they have enough clean evidence to defend the original convictions.

 

The earliest Dookhan cases go back to 2003, which means that some individuals have been living with a flawed drug conviction for nearly a decade and a half. Lawyers for defendants, prosecutors and the state's top court are also grappling with the question of how to find and contact defendants who may have been deported from the U.S. due to their now-overturned convictions, Segal said.

 

As a result, the effects of having an illegitimate drug conviction wiped away may not be immediately felt by many defendants.

 

"The longer that these tainted convictions remained on the books, the more power they've had and the more sway they've had over people's lives," said Luke Ryan, a criminal defense lawyer who has been following the Dookhan fallout and is also representing clients harmed by another Massachusetts drug lab scandal. "They've made choices around where they live, whether they can apply for public housing. They've foregone educational opportunities because they didn't think they would be able to take advantage of them, they haven't pursued job opportunities that maybe they could have gotten."

 

The prosecutors' move to dismiss thousands of cases follows a January decision from Massachusetts' highest court, which required them to decide which Dookhan convictions they would maintain and which ones they would dismiss. For years, prosecutors opposed any wholesale review of Dookhan-involved cases and at one point argued that they had no duty to send notice to convicted defendants of the possibly tainted evidence.

 

In September, prosecutors finally mailed out thousands of notices, but the letters lacked key information and were accompanied by an inadequate Spanish translation, according to the court. As of November, fewer than 2,000 Dookhan defendants had sought or gained relief from their convictions.

 

The most affected cases — nearly 8,000 — came from Suffolk County, which includes Boston. All of the convictions were based on "reliable, admissible evidence" in addition to Dookhan's tainted test results, and many of the defendants have criminal records that extend beyond the Dookhan cases, according to a statement from the Suffolk County District Attorney's Office.

 

The county's mass dismissal "represents a good faith effort to meet the high court's goal of winnowing the number of Dookhan defendants down to a manageable number," the statement said.

 

The hundreds of defendants whose Dookhan convictions were not overturned could still decide to challenge them by requesting a new trial. If they cannot afford their own lawyer, the state public defender agency is required to provide them one for free.

 

"It will be a challenge. But it's certainly a whole lot more manageable than the prospect of 20,000," said Nancy Caplan, the attorney leading the agency's Dookhan response. "It's within the realm of possibility."

 

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For a Comma, a Case Can Be Lost
Judge David Barron had this to say. “For want of a comma, we have this case.”
 
Language is the lawyer’s best weapon. It gets sharpened in the cut-and-thrust of intellectual battles in court. Those who shy away from the blood-letting, remaining ensconced in their offices, churning out page after page, inevitably submit to errors. The sharpening of claws is before a judge; because, finally, it is he who delivers the coup de grace, in the form of a judgement. A single word, misspelt or misplaced, can often mean the difference between a win and a loss. Or life and death.
 
It is said that the ex-minister, P Chidambaram, argued for two days, in the Supreme Court, over the positioning of a comma. While the outcome is not important, the value of a comma cannot be over-emphasised. 
 
Commas make interesting cases. 
 
A woman telegraphs her husband: “Have found wonderful bracelet. Price seventy-five thousand dollars. May I buy it?” Her alarmed husband replies, by telegram: “No, price too high.” The telegraph operator misses the comma after the word ‘No’, and the message now reads: “No price too high.” Elation, and her husband’s shock! He sues the telegraph company.
 
You be the judge. Would you allow such a demand?
 
The man won and, from that point on, telegraph rules required operators to spell out punctuation rather than use symbols. Remember the word—STOP—at the end of every sentence in telegrams? No price was too high to avoid the same mistake.
 
Commas had deadly effect when not used, or added, indiscriminately. Sir Roger Casement was hanged because a comma had been misinterpreted. The law then was unsure whether treason on foreign soil was actionable. A comma would have solved the problem. But it was missing and Sir Casement could not be freed. However, the court decided that a comma should be read in the unpunctuated, original, Norman-French text, crucially altering the sense; enough to convict Sir Roger.
 
Sir Casement was hanged, but his immortal last words gave way to the epigram, ‘Hanged by a comma’. 
 
Happy comma stories abound. ‘PARDON IMPOSSIBLE, TO BE SENT TO SIBERIA’ was purposely tampered to read, ‘PARDON, IMPOSSIBLE TO BE SENT TO SIBERIA’. Commas can make a life-and-death difference.
 
Non-macabre events also have ‘comma stories’. “Tropical fruit-plants for the purposes of propagation…” were not to be charged import duty. Mistakenly it read as “Tropical fruit, plants for the purposes of propagation…” thus allowing all tropical fruits to be imported into the US duty-free, the comma being read as ‘and’. The loss? A million dollars.
 
Back to Justice Barron. He had to decide on the rule that said, “... the protection of the overtime law does not apply to: The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of…” The parties’ (drivers) dispute concerned the meaning of the words “packing for shipment or distribution.” A comma appearing after the word, ‘packing’, would mean ‘packing for both’. Otherwise, it would mean two different activities, one of packing and another of distribution.
 
You be the judge. Which interpretation would you prefer?
 
There is what is called ‘legal fiction’. It allows for equity. Equity, often, means ‘balance of convenience’. It asks: What was the intention of the law-makers (and their drafters)? In this case, the judgement sided with the drivers.
 
Specifically, if that exemption used a serial comma to mark off the last of the activities that it lists, then the exemption would clearly encompass an activity that the drivers perform. And, in that event, the drivers would plainly fall within the exemption and thus outside the overtime law’s protection. But, as it happens, there is no serial comma to be found in the exemption’s list of activities, thus leading to this dispute over whether the drivers fall within the exemption from the overtime law or not.”
 
PS. The author often has verbal tussles with the editor over the overuse of commas. He now rests his case.
 

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COMMENTS

Bapoo Malcolm

2 months ago

This normally happens when the drafter knows what he is doing, but, he does not go into the reader's mind. This sentence may be better said like this. 'Normally, this happens when only the drafter knows what he is doing. He must also put himself into the reader's mind.'

Loooong sentences, convoluted legalese, never-ending paragraphs, all lead to problems. Another devil, raising its head, is the SMS language. Abbreviations can create havoc. An advertisement in the Economic Times, a month back, gave the address of a seminar by a few capital letters. No more. Today, I am still agonising over MSNBC, in a law article.

There is another penchant. The 'high' of making laws. Nice for coffee table talk; bad for implementation. Immortality may, or may not, flow from drafting. Therefore, laws cannot be left to one or two individuals. One cannot see further than one's nose. It's a fact. Maybe the judiciary can be included in vetting the drafts.

The good that men do is oft interred with their bones. The evil lives on after them. And bad laws play hell into generations to come.

There is a strong move to write legal stuff in plain language. Am part of some sites. Surprisingly, the move for simple English in courts had started in South India, some years back, by an Englishman. Maybe 20, 25 years ago.

If anyone is interested, can send my briefs, in simple English, for study.

The rule of thumb should be this. a) Remember that English is a lazy language, as my Mom had repeatedly said. b) Keep sentences to a maximum of 20 words. Maybe 25. Paragraphs to 70 or 80 words. Explain each topic as if you are talking with, not to, a 10-year old.

Then, see the difference.

Drafting is an art. Any and every babu thinks he can do it. No, he cannot. It cannot be a solo effort. One way to avoid complications is to allow the courts to vet the draft. Another person can spot areas of confusion. These exercises will lead to fewer problems.

vswami

2 months ago

Makes for a highly theoretical exposition of the vital significance of so called 'punctuation' ; and of the role it has or is expected to play, in the task of law-making, so also in administration and adjudication. To realize, given 'the nature of things' / extraneous considerations, etc., inevitably coming into play in the whole process, what is ideal may not always be practical. For finer points of most concern, refer some related previous Posts in public domain.

In short, - the cryptic observation of the Judge,- “For want of a comma, we have this case.” may also be taken to imply that, because of use of an extra comma, or in an inappropriate context, the possibility of the balance being tilted to one side- 'the case' being lost or won- cannot be ruled out.

Suresh

2 months ago

Choro, mat maro!
Choro mat, maro!

Star Messages in WhatsApp
With the ever-growing number of messages in WhatsApp, there are times when it is difficult to find some important message or telephone number which a friend had sent you, say, a month ago. You know it is very much there, but it could take ages to find it. More so, if the message is hiding in a tonne of group messages which you receive every day.
 
WhatsApp allows you to ‘Star’ a message—marking it as important, so to say. Just long press on a message and, on the menu that appears on the top; tap on Star. This will mark the message as starred. This is exactly like marking the message with a Bookmark or as a favourite.
 
Later, when you wish to find a starred message, all you have to do is go to the menu, and tap on starred messages. You will get all the starred messages listed in chronological order. You can further search within starred messages and reach your desired message quickly. Further, you can ‘Unstar’ a message later, making it easier to manage the starred messages.
 

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COMMENTS

Vijaykumar Kilar B

2 months ago

Good to know

saurabh-joshi

2 months ago

A very useful tip !

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