A PROJECT OF THE UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA IRVINE NEWKIRK CENTER FOR SCIENCE & SOCIETY,
UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN LAW SCHOOL & MICHIGAN STATE UNIVERSITY COLLEGE OF LAW
A PROJECT OF THE UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA IRVINE NEWKIRK CENTER FOR SCIENCE & SOCIETY,
More than 13,000 people in Massachusetts had their convictions vacated and charges dismissed after a chemist at a small forensics laboratory in Amherst was found to have extensively tampered with evidence, stolen drugs from the lab, and used drugs while at work.
Sonja Farak and two other chemists analyzed drug samples at the lab from late 2004 until its closure on January 18, 2013. The lab resided on the campus of the University of Massachusetts, operating as a satellite facility of the main state Department of Public Health lab in Boston. (The Massachusetts 2017 group exoneration involving chemist Annie Dookhan↗ took place at the main lab.) The Amherst lab had no accreditation, few established protocols, and minimal oversight of its four employees.
On January 17, 2013, Sharon Salem, the lab’s evidence officer, noticed two missing cocaine samples tested by Farak when she attempted to match testing certificates with the samples, and told her supervisor. They found the missing envelopes for the samples at Farak’s work station, but when they retested the substances in the envelopes they did not find cocaine. The supervisor also found a makeshift pipe for smoking crack cocaine under Farak’s desk.
He contacted the Massachusetts State Police, which closed the lab immediately for an audit. It never reopened. Farak appeared in Springfield District Court that day to testify in a drug case. At lunch, she smoked crack in her car, then returned to court to give testimony. Two state troopers approached her at the court and asked to speak with her. She agreed to an interview. When they asked Farak why a crack pipe might be under her desk, she asked to speak with her union representative and refused consent to a search of her car, which was then seized as evidence.
Police arrested Farak two days later, eventually charging her with four counts of tampering with evidence, four counts of theft of cocaine, and two counts of unlawful possession of cocaine. State police almost immediately contacted the office of Attorney General Martha Coakley.
The attorney general’s office faced conflicting roles. State attorneys had to prosecute Farak, who served as an expert witness. The attorney general also had a duty to investigate the extent of her misconduct, what she had done and how long she had done it, in relation to her own liability. The office simultaneously worked with the state’s 11 district attorneys to assess how her misconduct might undermine pending and completed drug cases.
At the time, the Dookhan scandal was barely six months old, but already snowballing. Gov. Deval Patrick and other officials initially distinguished Farak’s actions from Dookhan’s misconduct, describing them as more isolated and limited. Patrick told reporters on January 21: “My first reaction was, ‘You've got to be kidding.’” He referred to Farak as a lone bad actor and said that no one’s due process had been compromised by her alleged misconduct.
Very quickly, the state’s district attorneys issued a statement pledging to cooperate with defense attorneys. “The state’s District Attorneys,” the statement said, “remain committed to ensuring that the rights of all defendants are properly respected and the public safety preserved, and therefore will remain proactive in identifying cases, notifying defense counsel and bringing them before the court.”
During the next several weeks, state police investigators executed search warrants on Farak’s car, her desk, and a duffle bag found at the lab. Photographs of Farak’s car depict a mess, strewn with papers and the debris of a down spiraling life. Investigators identified powder and crack cocaine, pills, and evidence bags with her supervisor’s initials. The trooper who filed the search-warrant return listed envelopes, letters, and an evidence bag from the lab. He categorized many of the inventoried items as “assorted lab paperwork.” The trooper testified that he did not read any of the paperwork before filing his report.
Police searched Farak’s desk on January 28. They found 11.7 grams of cocaine and a white powder containing oxycodone. The duffle bag contained products that could be used to replace cocaine: baking soda, candle wax, soap and clay. It also contained lab-evidence bags, some with Farak’s initials and one with the initials of one of her fellow chemists. Several of the bags bore dates from December 2012 and January 2013, which supported the inference that Farak tampered with evidence assigned to her co-workers.
In early February 2013, State Police Sgt. Joseph Ballou began reviewing the paperwork seized from Farak’s car. He discovered Farak’s mental-health worksheets among the “assorted lab paperwork.” The worksheets included what are called ServiceNet diary cards, which therapy patients use to document their behavior. The cards were undated, but a reference to a football game on one of the cards linked them to the fall of 2011. The writing on the cards suggested that Farak was taking drugs and drinking daily during this period and that she was unable to control her addiction. In one entry on a separate worksheet she described her urge to use a sample from work. She wrote that she should call her therapist, “but I don't want to. I can lie on my homework. I'm a bad person for having urges. I'm a bad person for not wanting to try to stop them. It doesn't matter – I won't get caught.”
A judge used the worksheets as evidence that Farak’s misconduct dated at least to 2011 and that her mental-health providers might have more information about the extent of her drug use and her stealing from the lab.
On February 14, Ballou emailed portions of the mental-health worksheets to Assistant Attorney General Anne Kaczmarek, who was leading the Farak prosecution. Ballou intended to provide inculpatory evidence against Farak. The email’s subject line read “Farak Admissions,” and Ballou wrote “Here are the admissions of drug use that I was talking about.” Much later, a judge relied on these worksheets to criticize the Attorney General’s response, noting, “It was clear that such evidence constituted important exculpatory evidence for drug lab defendants and that such evidence supported a finding that the scope of Farak's misconduct warranted further investigation.”
Almost immediately after Farak’s arrest, defendants began filing motions for new trials, arguing that her misconduct likely tainted her analysis. Officials struggled to determine when the misconduct began. Throughout 2013, in court filings and in hearings, Kaczmarek and other attorneys with the attorney general’s office misled defense attorneys, other prosecutors, and a trial judge about the extent of Farak’s misconduct. In addition, Kaczmarek discouraged a colleague at the state’s Office of the Inspector General from conducting a more thorough investigation.
On March 27, 2013, John Verner, the head of the AG’s Criminal Bureau, updated the state’s district attorneys on the Farak investigation, including the potential exculpatory evidence. The memo listed 16 different exculpatory items, including the evidence recovery logs and transcribed interviews with Farak’s co-workers. This memo omitted mention of the mental-health worksheets, as did a separate letter from Kaczmarek. The state also chose not to submit the mental-health records to the grand jury that indicted Farak in April 2013, although they were given to Farak’s attorney, Elaine Pourinski, as part of discovery.
At some point in the summer of 2013, Kaczmarek told Pourinski that the state considered the worksheets to be privileged medical information and would not disclose them to drug-lab defendants. On May 14, 2013, a defendant named Rolando Penate filed a pre-trial discovery motion seeking evidence related to Farak’s arrest relating to his indictment for several counts of possession and distribution of heroin. When the state failed to respond to the discovery motion in a timely fashion, Penate’s attorney, Luke Ryan, filed a motion to dismiss.
Judge Mary Lou Rup scheduled an evidentiary hearing and reminded the district attorney that it had an “obligation to seek (evidence) from government agencies (including the Office of the Attorney General) and to produce exculpatory evidence that may be favorable to this defendant's case, and not simply turn a blind eye to what is not in its immediate control.”
Separately, on July 25, 2013, Judge Jeffrey Kinder consolidated 16 separate motions by defendants for post-conviction relief into three days of evidentiary hearings in Hampden Superior Court beginning on September 9, 2013. Kinder intended to determine the time span and scope of Farak’s misconduct, to review the findings from a 2012 performance audit of the lab, and then to decide whether these issues warranted relief. Kinder included Penate’s case in these hearings. In the weeks preceding the first day of hearings, defense attorneys subpoenaed Ballou and Kaczmarek, asking them to produce any and all correspondence related to the Farak investigation and the Amherst lab.
The state moved to quash the subpoenas. Assistant Attorney General Kris Foster was assigned to respond to the motions and argue the state’s case before Kinder. She was barely two months into her job, and a supervisor needed to tell her the steps to filing a motion to quash a subpoena. Foster did not review the evidence taken in Farak’s case, and she relied on Kaczmarek’s statement that everything had been turned over. At the first day of hearings, on September 9, Kinder denied the state’s motion to quash the Ballou subpoena. Foster then moved for a protective order allowing the state to withhold some of the trooper’s files. Kinder asked Foster if she brought the files to court, as he ordered. She had not. He asked Foster if she had reviewed the files. She said no, that she relied on Kaczmarek’s guidance that several of the documents were protected as work product. Kinder ordered her to produce for his review all the documents she wanted protected. He expressed frustration, “But I must say I am a little bit disturbed that a court order for the production of a file has not been produced absent a determination by me as to whether it should or should not be produced.”
The attorney general’s office scrambled to respond. Foster, without reviewing the file, wrote an intentionally vague one-paragraph response: “After reviewing Sergeant Ballou's file, every document in his possession has been disclosed.” Foster would later testify that the wording was designed to create the impression that she had reviewed the file without actually saying she had done so.
This sort of cat-and-mouse game continued throughout the fall of 2013. Ryan, the attorney for Penate and a post-conviction defendant named Rafael Rodriguez, filed a motion to inspect the Farak evidence. The state resisted, accusing Ryan of undertaking a fishing expedition. In a hearing, Foster argued, “I think the problem is that this is just irrelevant evidence. I think the prejudice would be the fact that every single defendant who has ever had an Amherst case will all of a sudden be asking for access to the lab to look at, essentially irrelevant evidence.”
Ryan filed a separate motion for post-conviction discovery in August 2013 seeking any documents suggesting that a third party knew of Farak’s misconduct. Foster, again relying exclusively on Kaczmarek’s statements, responded that all documents had been disclosed. “Based on these records to which the defendant has access, there is no reason to believe that a third-party had knowledge of Farak's alleged malfeasance prior to her arrest.”
The hearings ended on October 23, 2013. On November 4, 2013, Kinder found that Farak’s misconduct began no earlier than July 2012. He denied post-conviction relief for the defendants with earlier cases and also denied Penate’s motion to dismiss.
During this period, Pourinski was in negotiations with the state over a possible plea by Farak. The state wanted Farak to submit to a proffer, where she would make a full accounting of her misconduct and illegal activities. Pourinski said that was possible, but only if Farak was given immunity from further prosecution and also offered probation for the existing charges. The two sides could not reach an agreement. On January 6, 2014, Farak pled guilty to four counts of evidence tampering, two counts of larceny, and two counts of possession of cocaine, and the court sentenced her to 18 months in prison.
Penate went to trial just before Farak entered her plea, charged with possession of heroin. Farak tested the evidence in his case on December 22, 2011 and January 9, 2012. The parties stipulated that Farak would not testify. The court limited Ryan, Penate’s attorney, in his exploration of the extent of misconduct at the Amherst lab. A jury convicted Penate of distributing heroin on December 13, 2013 and the court sentenced him to between five and seven years in prison.
After Farak’s plea, the state could no longer claim the evidence taken from her car related to an ongoing prosecution, and the defendants whose requests Kinder had denied resumed their efforts for discovery. Initially, the state continued to oppose these requests, but finally, on July 31, 2014, the state gave Ryan access to the documents from Farak’s car. Two months later, he inspected the evidence and found the mental-health worksheets. Ryan sent a 10-page letter to the attorney general’s office the next day, titled “Newly discovered evidence.” He noted that the worksheets provided proof that Farak entered addiction treatment as far back as November 2011 and that other documents suggested she took drugs from the lab in December 2011.
This evidence directly contradicted Kinder’s ruling that no evidence suggested Farak engaged in misconduct before July 2012. “It would be difficult to overstate the significance of these documents,” Ryan wrote. He asked the state to agree to a protective order allowing him to share the documents with other defense attorneys working on post-conviction relief.
On November 13, 2014, the state notified district attorneys across Massachusetts that it would be sending them 289 pages of evidence, including the mental-health worksheets, that had not been previously disclosed.
The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court continued to hear related cases. One of the cases Kinder ruled on—for a defendant named Erick Cotto—made its way to the high court in 2015. The court also heard a separate appeal, by Bryant Ware, who had pled guilty to drug charges in 2011 and unsuccessfully sought post-conviction discovery after Farak’s arrest.
The justices issued opinions in favor of the defendants in both cases on April 8, 2015. The court allowed Cotto to withdraw his guilty plea and ruled that Ware could proceed with discovery. The court also criticized the state for its minimal efforts to learn the extent of the problems at the drug lab. It wrote in the Cotto case: “It is clear from the record that Farak engaged in egregious misconduct at the Amherst drug lab, and that any deficiencies in the evidence as to the scope and timing of her misconduct are attributable to the Commonwealth in light of its failure to conduct a thorough investigation of the matter.”
The court ordered the state to conduct a thorough investigation of the lab “in order to remove the cloud that has been cast over the integrity of the work performed at that facility, which has serious implications for the entire criminal justice system.”
Thomas Caldwell, an assistant attorney general, directed the investigation. He completed the work on April 1, 2016, and found serious deficiencies in the lab’s overall operations: a lack of security, a lack of accreditation, a lack of supervision, and even a lack of proper maintenance on expensive and sensitive equipment.
Caldwell’s team convened two grand juries and called most of the Amherst employees as witnesses, including Farak, who provided startling details about her misconduct. Farak admitted she began stealing the lab’s methamphetamine in early 2004, shortly after she was hired. She stole from the “methamphetamine standard,” a supply used as a reference point for testing samples of methamphetamine, or speed, provided by the police. It was oil-based and extremely pure.
Farak testified that the methamphetamine gave her energy and made her feel “more alert and more let’s get this done sort of thing.” She alleged that her use didn’t compromise her work. Farak reported using speed nearly every day by early 2005 and continuing to do so for four years. When the standard ran low, Farak began using Ecstasy, other amphetamines, and even LSD from the lab. She also began stealing the lab’s cocaine standard but worried about getting caught because the cocaine standard was used for testing purposes more frequently.
Farak testified that in 2009 she began siphoning small amounts of the cocaine submitted for lab testing, around 5 percent, a loss that she could attribute to testing and evaporation. Later, she moved to crack, making it from powder cocaine samples provided by police or stealing it from the lab’s inventory. On January 9, 2012, Farak took LSD at work. She denied performing any tests that day, but her lab notebook and other documents suggest she tested 11 drug samples, including a second test of Penate’s evidence.
As her addiction grew and her efforts at sobriety failed, Farak began stealing samples from her co-workers. She would replace the stolen drugs with a counterfeit substance. Police, particularly from Springfield, brought evidence to the lab in unsealed bags. The lab sealed the evidence bags on arrival. Farak manipulated the sealing machine to form a weak seal that could be broken and resealed without being noticed. She testified that her drug use and misconduct continued right up to the day the state troopers questioned her outside Springfield District Court.
Farak’s co-workers testified that she was a very good chemist and that prosecutors praised her work. They said they didn’t notice anything amiss, although one co-worker said Farak lost a lot of weight and became moody by the end of 2012.
The day before Caldwell issued his findings, a separate report cleared Kaczmarek, Foster and the Massachusetts State Police of misconduct in their responses to the request for subpoenas by attorneys for the Farak defendants. Two retired superior court judges prepared this report at the request of the attorney general’s office. The report found no intent to conceal; rather it concluded that the attorneys for the state exercised appropriate caution in not releasing documents they believed privileged under health-privacy laws. They noted that the state released the documents after Farak pled guilty and would have been released if her case had gone to trial. After these two reports were released, the motions of the Farak defendants returned to Hampden Superior Court. Kinder had moved to the state’s court of appeals, and Judge Richard Carey replaced him.
Despite the attorney general’s report absolving the state police and prosecutors of any misconduct, Carey scheduled six days of hearings in December 2016, hearing from 17 witnesses and examining 286 exhibits. He also heard motions from the Farak defendants and read briefs through May 2017. He released his 127-page memorandum of decision and findings of facts on June 26, 2017. The decision granted motions to dismiss or motions to withdraw pleas for seven of the nine Farak defendants with active appeals. (The ruling denied relief to two defendants because of the timing of their pleas or when their evidence was tested.)
Carey also found that the state’s attorneys failed to seek justice by hiding evidence of the extent of Farak’s misconduct. “Despite the drug lab defendants’ diligent discovery efforts, Kaczmarek and Foster managed to withhold the mental health worksheets through deception,” Carey wrote. “They tampered with the fair administration of justice by deceiving Judge Kinder and engaging in a pattern calculated to interfere with the court's ability impartially to adjudicate discovery in the drug lab cases and to learn the scope of Farak's misconduct. Kaczmarek's and Foster's misconduct improperly influenced and distorted Judge Kinder's fact finding and legal conclusions and it unfairly hampered the defendants' presentation of defenses. Their conduct constitutes a fraud upon the court.”
The Committee for Public Counsel Services (CPCS), which manages public-defender services in Massachusetts, along with the Massachusetts chapter of the ACLU↗ sued the state on behalf of several defendants in September 2017. The case sought a global remedy for the misconduct, arguing that a case-by-case appeals process would place an undue burden on defendants.
By December 2017, the state’s district attorneys had assembled a list of 8,000 defendants in cases in which Farak had signed the drug-certificate analysis. CPCS argued that the DAs had been too constrained in building its list. CPCS sought dismissal of all cases involving testing at the drug lab during Farak’s tenure, regardless of the named chemist. The district attorneys argued there was no basis to conclude that Farak’s misconduct compromised the work of her colleagues.
On October 11, 2018, the Supreme Judicial Court ruled in favor of expanding the pool of defendants. The court noted that “the government misconduct at issue” went beyond Farak, and “also involves the deceptive withholding of exculpatory evidence by members of the Attorney General’s office, who were duty-bound to investigate and disclose Farak’s wrongdoing.”
The court noted that while Farak’s misconduct between 2004 and 2008 was limited to stealing from the methamphetamine standard, she began stealing from police-submitted samples and engaging in widespread evidence tampering in 2009. The court ruled that Farak defendants would include any individuals convicted of methamphetamine offenses during Farak’s employment at the lab and any persons whose convictions were based on drugs tested at the lab between January 1, 2009 and January 18, 2013, regardless of the analyst.
On March 16, the court expanded the pool to include defendants who had pled guilty to a drug crime before receiving a signed testing certificate from the lab during the periods under review. The court ordered the dismissal of all these cases. A report prepared for the Supreme Judicial Court in 2019 said that 16,449 cases involving more than 24,000 charges were dismissed. According to research by the Massachusetts ACLU, 13,101 people were wrongfully convicted based on Farak's misconduct, including many who were convicted more than once. In addition, according to the ACLU, 247 defendants were also wrongfully convicted due to misconduct in the other Massachusetts drug lab scandal, involving Annie Dookhan.
Associate Justice Frank Gaziano of the Supreme Judicial Court sent the first wave of letters to defendants in March 2019. They read in part: “A chemist named Sonja Farak engaged in serious misconduct involving her work at a state drug lab. Your case includes one or more drug convictions affected by Ms. Farak. The court has now dismissed the conviction(s). This dismissal is final and permanent, which means you cannot be prosecuted again for any charge that has been dismissed.”
The state’s Board of Bar Overseers filed disciplinary charges on June 28, 2019, against Kaczmarek, Foster, and Verner for violating the rules of professional conduct. Their cases remain pending. None of the attorneys works in the attorney general’s office as of March 2020. “Prosecutors tend to be unique as practicing attorneys, in escaping consequences for ethical lapses,” Ryan told the Washington Post. “When a Board of Bar Overseers finds misconduct in a case like this, it’s significant.”
While many of the Farak defendants never served active prison sentences or had already been released at the time of the dismissals, the convictions carried enormous costs. In many cases, the convictions limited access to housing, jobs, and other benefits. Others were deported.
As part of their effort to be made whole, the Farak defendants – along with the Massachusetts 2017 Dookhan defendants -- filed a class-action lawsuit against the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in 2018 before the Supreme Judicial Court expanded the pool of eligible defendants. The defendants want the state to pay back the costs of their convictions, including court costs, probation-monitoring fees, and the costs of getting their licenses reinstated. They also want to be compensated for the court-mandated community service. The litigation remains pending. Separately, Penate settled a lawsuit with the city of Springfield, receiving $170,000 in December 2020.
- Ken Otterbourg
- Number of Defendants: 13,100
- Number of Defendants in Individual Registry: 0
- Drug possession/sale
- Earliest conviction:
- Most Recent Conviction:
- First Exoneration: 2018
- Most Recent Exoneration: 2019
- Total Known Compensation: $170,000