Our Opinion: A pragmatic decision on tainted drug cases

Berkshire County's acting district attorney, Paul Caccaviello, announced last Wednesday that he was dropping all drug charges associated with tainted findings from the now-defunct drug lab located at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst (Eagle, April 12). His decision affects hundreds of defendants whose cases are awaiting adjudication, and while it is probably true that many of those deserve punishment, Mr. Caccaviello's call is nevertheless the correct one.

In a far-reaching scandal dating back five years, the head of the drug lab, Sonja Farak, was found to have tainted and stolen drug evidence to service her own addiction problem — creating a wide-open door for defense attorneys in jurisdictions across the state to march through. Compounding the damage was the withholding of evidence concerning the crime by two former prosecutors in the attorney general's office. Since then, the Supreme Judicial Court has dismissed almost 8,000 cases and may do the same to 19,000 more. These numbers do not even cover those now in prison whose sentences may have been lengthened due to the tainted evidence.

In an attempt to salvage what it could of the legal disaster, the district attorney's office under Mr. Caccaviello's predecessor, David Capeless, reviewed the pending cases within its jurisdiction and determined that there were still a few that might be salvageable. After discussing the issue with his colleagues around the state and the current attorney general, Maura Healey, Mr. Caccaveillo has agreed to drop even these and start over with a clean slate.

While this development may irk many law-and-order advocates, Mr. Caccaviello's decision, in the long run, actually strengthens the hand of the state in prosecuting crimes. To pursue cases based upon tainted evidence, or that possess even a shred of doubt about the legitimacy of that evidence, would be not only a potential waste of valuable time but also risks a serious erosion of trust in the system. As Mr. Cacciaviello told The Eagle, "I believe, in the final analysis, this is the right thing to do, in the pursuit of justice on a larger scale."

The criminal justice system comprises many departments and involves many people, most of whom see their work as a calling and conduct themselves according to the principle of equal justice under the law. Unfortunately, like any complex organization, a misstep — whether accidental or deliberate — can have cascading ramifications down the line. Ms. Farak's miscarriage of justice has caused immeasurable havoc, but Attorney General Maura Healey, Mr. Caccaviello and the state's other prosecutors have decided to cut their losses.

The good news is that it frees the system to move ahead; after all, there is never a shortage, unfortunately, of new crimes to prosecute. This move takes "presumption of innocence" to an extreme, but in this particular instance, extreme action is exactly what is required.


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