Legal Briefs

Committee for Public Counsel Services v. Attorney General of Massachusetts, Mass. Supreme Judicial Court

From 2004 to January 2013, Massachusetts state chemist Sonja Farak used drugs that she stole from or manufactured in the Amherst Lab, causing thousands of people to be wrongfully convicted of drug crimes based on unreliable evidence. To make matters worse, prosecutors from the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office (“AGO”), have repeatedly and persistently attempted to cover up and minimize the scope of this scandal. Former Assistant AGs Kris Foster and Anne Kaczmarek committed “fraud on the court” by withholding exculpatory evidence, and misleading the superior court into finding — incorrectly — that Farak’s drug use began only in 2012, rather than all the way back in 2004. Moreover, the AGO itself consistently failed to investigate the scope of this misconduct, failed to correct false statements made to the courts, and failed to notify the defendants affected by the scandal.

To address and rectify this massive degree of prosecutorial misconduct, the ACLU and a group of public defenders filed a petition with the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (“SJC”), asking the SJC to dismiss the convictions of all defendants whose samples were processed by Farak’s lab, and also to issue standing orders designed to prevent similar misconduct in the future, and grant issue monetary sanctions against the AGO. The Cato Institute, along with the NYU Center on the Administration of Criminal Law, has filed an amicus brief in support of this petition.

Prosecutorial misconduct — especially the unlawful withholding of exculpatory evidence from the defense — is rampant across the country, yet prosecutors themselves are hardly ever held accountable. Internal discipline does little to nothing, criminal prosecutions are incredibly rare, and thanks to the Supreme Court’s invention of the doctrine of absolute immunity, prosecutors can never be held civilly liable, even for the most egregious, willful misconduct. This is all the more troubling because prosecutors wield enormous power in our criminal justice system, especially given the immense leverage they can bring to bear on defendants to coerce them into accepting pleas. In light of this background, it is crucial for the SJC to issue broad relief — in particular, to issue standing orders that compel pre-plea compliance with the disclosure obligations of Brady v. Maryland, and that provide for meaningful discipline and sanctions if prosecutors fail to meet these obligations.

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