Berkshire DA will drop cases tainted by drug lab misconduct
PITTSFIELD — Hundreds of Berkshire County defendants will soon see their drug charges dismissed due to misconduct at the now-defunct Amherst Drug Lab, including the "handful" that retired District Attorney David Capeless had hoped to retry.
Newly named District Attorney Paul Caccaviello said Wednesday that the office decided to let go of all the cases for which disgraced drug lab chemist Sonja Farak certified drug evidence before her 2013 arrest.
"After a case-by-case review of the cases potentially affected by Ms. Farak's misconduct, there's a small number of cases that we determined had a basis to be legally maintained. So that the Attorney General's Office could pursue a more global and systemic response to the situation, they asked that I consider joining the other DA offices in a decision not to pursue any cases potentially affected by that misconduct," Caccaviello said of his decision to let go of the cases.
"In an effort to assist the process of moving not just past this difficult period, but continue with a system that the public can have confidence in, I have concluded that Berkshire will not pursue any of its cases potentially impacted by Ms. Farak's far-reaching misconduct. I believe, in the final analysis, this is the right thing to do, in the pursuit of justice on a larger scale."
Farak was arrested in January 2013 for tampering with and stealing drug evidence at the state crime lab at the University of Massachusetts Amherst to feed her own drug addiction. Five years later, the ordeal hangs like a cloud over officials still working to quantify the damage and devise a reasonable solution.
Compounding the tampering ordeal was subsequent misconduct: The Attorney General's Office, under previous leadership, failed to release evidence that Farak struggled with addiction for years, beyond the six-month window prosecutors originally thought — a misstep that, courts ruled, led to longer sentences for some defendants.
A spokesperson for Attorney General Maura Healey said the office is pleased with Caccaviello's decision. The office plans to submit a brief in the ongoing case before the Supreme Judicial Court this week.
Rebecca Jacobstein, an attorney with the Committee for Public Counsel Services, said she also is pleased with the announcement.
"I appreciate the new DA's willingness to reconsider," she said Wednesday. "We also appreciate the AG's taking a lead in making sure justice is done in all of these cases."
Last week, the SJC ordered the dismissal of about 7,700 cases that bore Farak's name. Next month, the full court will consider a brief filed by the Committee for Public Counsel Services and the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts to dismiss all of the nearly 19,000 drug cases certified at the lab during Farak's eight-year tenure there.
Jacobstein said that, given that thousands of people in Massachusetts have waited years to see relief for charges filed on potentially tainted evidence, the remedy is warranted.
"We think that they should agree to do that, too," Jacobstein said.
For those unsure of whether evidence in their drug cases tested from 2005 to 2013 could be affected, Jacobstein said the CPCS hotline is ready to take questions at 888-999-2881. She said an interactive online tool through the CPCS website also can help defendants curious about impacts on their cases.
Amanda Drane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, @amandadrane on Twitter, and 413-496-6296.
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