MEDIA CONTACT: Barbara Dougan, firstname.lastname@example.org
BOSTON – Today, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts ruled that defendants whose cases were handled by convicted former drug lab chemist Annie Dookhan cannot face either more serious charges or longer sentences than prosecutors agreed to in the original plea agreement, if they challenge their convictions based on Dookhan’s involvement.
“The SJC clearly made the right decision on this issue,” said Barbara Dougan, FAMM’s Massachusetts project director. “No one should be penalized for challenging a sentence that may have been based on fraud or lies. But this case also illuminates the larger issues underpinning our drug sentencing laws. Too many drug defendants feel compelled to give up their constitutional right to a trial in order to avoid an overly harsh mandatory minimum sentence. Using extreme sentences to coerce guilty pleas has never been a legitimate function of sentencing under Massachusetts law. The case also reminds us of the utter folly of basing sentences on the literal weight of the evidence – the quantity of drugs involved – rather than an individual’s actions and motivation.”
The court’s decision in Bridgeman v. District Attorney of Suffolk County, the latest in a series of cases concerning the massive criminal misconduct, could affect more than 40,000 cases affected by the drug lab crisis.
Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) filed a “friend of the court” brief with the SJC last December urging it to forbid harsher sentences for those challenging tainted convictions. Many Dookhan defendants pleaded guilty to the charges against them in exchange for a shorter sentence before learning of Dookhan’s misconduct and other problems at the state’s Hinton lab. But they have been afraid to challenge their convictions for fear that prosecutors might reinstate the original charges, subjecting them to harsher punishment than they originally received – which usually takes the form of lengthy mandatory minimum sentences.
Twenty-four other organizations joined FAMM’s call for fairness, including criminal justice, religious and academic groups (see complete list on next page).
The law firm of Ropes & Gray drafted FAMM’s brief on a pro bono basis. According to partner Aaron M. Katz, “With today’s decision, the Supreme Judicial Court has made a giant leap forward in dealing with the injustices of the Hinton Drug Lab scandal. Although that scandal and its victims should never be forgotten, the SJC’s decision places the Commonwealth several steps closer to putting the scandal in its past. Today’s decision is a ringing endorsement of the proposition that courts must take meaningful remedial action in response to egregious litigation misconduct committed by any member of the prosecution team.”
FAMM is a national nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that works to ensure that punishment fits the crime. In 2008, FAMM launched its Massachusetts project, focusing on drug sentencing laws. For more information on FAMM, visit http://famm.org/.
Organizations that joined FAMM’s brief:
Arise for Social Action
Black and Pink
Boston Workers Alliance
Center for Church and Prison
Criminal Justice Policy Coalition
Ex-Prisoners and Prisoners Organizing for Community Advancement (EPOCA)
Families for Justice as Healing
Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School
Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice
NAACP, New England Area Conference
National Lawyers Guild, Massachusetts Chapter
New Start Project
Prisoners’ Legal Services
Real Cost of Prisons Project
STRIVE/Boston Employment Service
Tufts Center for the Study of Race and Democracy
Union of Minority Neighborhoods
UU (Unitarian Universalist) Mass Action Network