Berkshire DA: 11 open cases affected by evidence probe at Amherst drug lab
PITTSFIELD -- At least 11 criminal cases have stalled in Berkshire Superior Court as defense attorneys try and determine if their cases are among those affected by the investigation into evidence-tampering at the now-shuttered Massachusetts State Crime Laboratory in Amherst.
On Tuesday, attorneys Jill Sheldon and Richard S. Taskin appeared before Judge John A. Agostini on separate cases in which alleged drug evidence was tested at the lab. Both of their clients are facing cocaine trafficking charges.
According to Berkshire District Attorney David F. Capeless, his office has identified 11 open cases that include evidence tested by Sonja Farak, a state analyst facing criminal charges for allegedly tampering with evidence she was working with.
Taskin is representing 42-year-old Shaun Morton of Pittsfield, whose alleged drug evidence was handled by Farak.
Sheldon, of the Committee for Public Counsel Services, is representing Marcus D. James, 29, of Springfield, who also had evidence tested at the lab. Sheldon said she plans on filing a motion seeking more information on the state investigation into the lab and Farak.
"We have a very limited amount of information about the investigation," Sheldon said. "We know the lab was shut down and is considered a crime scene."
The attorney said they could be dealing with tainted evidence or falsified drug reports.
"We don't know the extent of it," Sheldon said.
A March 27 hearing date has been scheduled for both cases.
Last month, Farak, 35, of Northampton, was arrested and charged with two counts of evidence tampering and single counts of heroin and cocaine possession after an investigation allegedly revealed she had stolen drug samples and replaced them with counterfeits. She has pleaded not guilty to the charges.
Capeless said he has been updated "in summary fashion" on the investigation by the state police, but that it is still in the preliminary stages. The lab has been shut down during the inquiry.
Capeless believes the state investigation will give them an idea of what Farak did, but won't likely provide a complete picture.
"There will be a lot of speculation, but not hard facts," he said.
Capeless said he will likely move to have the drugs in question re-tested, which he believes should pave the way for continuing to prosecute the cases.
Besides the pending cases, Capeless said his office is going through prior cases to determine whether they included evidence handled by Farak.
This is the second incident involving a state crime lab and allegations of tampering. While this is the first to affect any criminal cases here, both scandals have cost taxpayers money, according to Capeless.
On Jan. 9, former state drug chemist Annie Dookhan pleaded not guilty to obstruction of justice charges. She is alleged to have fabricated test results and tampered with drug evidence while working at the Department of Public Health in Jamaica Plain. Thousands of drug convictions in Massachusetts are being reviewed as a result, according to the Associated Press.
Capeless said it cost his office about $15,000 in staffing costs to go through all files to determine that no cases in Berkshire County were handled by Dookhan. He estimates it will be at least $50,000 to review the work involving Farak.
Meanwhile, Sheldon is preparing her motion. She says it will likely become "a joint effort" with other defense attorneys with similar cases.
"This is just the first step," said Sheldon.
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