By Richard Valdmanis
BOSTON (Reuters) - Civil rights lawyers on Thursday asked Massachusetts' top court for measures that would help thousands of people overturn drug convictions based on evidence tainted by a rogue crime lab scientist, in a case that could have national implications.
The American Civil Liberties Union told Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court justices that a huge number of defendants have not yet been notified they can challenge their convictions in the wake of one of the country's biggest crime lab scandals, and that those who do may be afraid to act.
"There are prosecutors... who are saying that if you challenge your conviction, we are withdrawing plea offers," said Matthew Segal, lawyer for the ACLU of Massachusetts, pointing out defendants could therefore end up with harsher penalties.
Former crime lab scientist Annie Dookhan pled guilty in 2013 to tampering with evidence at the now-closed Hinton State Laboratory Institute in Boston, where she worked from 2002 to 2011. She is serving a three-to-five year jail sentence.
Investigators have said her mishandling of evidence may have tainted cases involving as many as 40,000 people, shaking the foundations of the state's criminal justice system. More than 300 people convicted of drug violations have been released from prison as a result, and many others are seeking retrials.
Attorneys representing some of the defendants asked the court to order prosecutors to do more to notify people whose cases may have been affected, and to limit their ability to seek harsher sentences if the cases are retried.
Prosecutors countered that defendants seeking to overturn their convictions should be brought back to square one, with all charges revived and plea agreements thrown out.
They added that they estimated the number of defendants whose cases may have been affected by Dookhan's tampering was probably more along the lines of 20,000, and that some 17,000 of them were already in the process of being notified.
The court's justices are now considering the matter.
The Supreme Judicial Court ruled last year that the state shares blame for Dookhan's misconduct, and that the court could mull a "systemic approach" to addressing the aftermath.
Any decision by the court could set a national precedent on how to handle convictions that were based on evidence from crime labs later found to have flawed practices.
((Reporting by Richard Valdmanis; Editing by Ken Wills and Marguerita Choy))