The four-episode Netflix series, How to Fix a Drug Scandal (HFDS) was released on Netflix on Wednesday. It comes from filmmaker Erin Lee Carr (also known for HBO’s 2019 amazing documentary At the Heart of Gold: Inside the USA Gymnastics Scandal, as well as other compelling documentaries like I Love You Now Die and Mommie Dead and Dearest). HFDS centers on Sonja Farak and Annie Dookhan, two Massachusetts drug lab chemists who both committed egregious acts while on their jobs, causing countless wrongful convictions. What I loved about the series was that it showed the importance of having dedicated, tenacious lawyers to keep the State in check and pursue justice and truth no matter how long it takes.
Quick summary: There are two drug testing labs used by all the prosecutors in the State of Massachusetts, the Amherst lab in Western Mass and the Hinton lab in Boston, in Eastern Mass. Farak worked at Amherst, Dookhan at Hinton. Both were bright, talented people who went seriously astray.
Farak began using drugs at the lab almost as soon as she got the gig. She started with methamphetamine, moved on to powder cocaine and then became viciously addicted to crack cocaine, to the point where one day she actually cooked up a huge batch of crack in the lab! She used drugs several times a day every day she worked there. She would steal from two places – the evidence bags and the jars of standards kept in an unlocked refrigerator at the lab. Of course a chemist who smoked crack, then dropped LSD then did some more crack (all in one day) might just not be a reliable technician working scientific equipment.
Dookhan’s wrongs were far different – she was a highly regarded chemist whose work product was light years ahead of the other chemists. In fact she produced four times more certifications (test results proving the seized substances were actually narcotics) than any other chemist. Well turns out that was because she was totally faking the results. She would test one sample and then use those findings on three or four other samples from different cases. So in approximately 75% of the cases she handled, no test was really done to see if the items seized were actually drugs. On top of that, she had a cozy relationship with the prosecutors who would email her telling her how important and serious a particular case was; Dookhan would email back that she was excited to be part of the team putting away the bad guys. Except chemists are not on the prosecutors’ team – they are supposed to be independent analysts who call the shots based on test results alone. She was so far gone and in love with one particular prosecutor that she fabricated emails to make it look like she was divorced and that staff members were emailing each other about what a catch she was.
The series highlight how horrible that lab system in Massachusetts was. No oversight; no standards; sloppy conditions; huge caseloads; and two out of control chemists. It also shows how the criminal justice system is essentially a non-stop factory where case after case are just shuffled through the courts. The film is an indictment of the entire process.
But I want to focus on another aspect of the documentary. It is essentially a love letter to criminal defense lawyers, a group normally just slightly ahead of rapists and pedophiles in many people’s minds. Carr however shows how two defense lawyers, Luke Ryan in the Farak cases and Dan Marx (with great help from the Massachusetts’ ACLU) in the Dookhan cases were relentless in their pursuit of the truth.
Ryan filed petition after petition to get at the evidence trying to show when the State knew about Farak’s drug problems. An initial hearing he obtained resulted in a shoddy evidentiary hearing where the State AG’s office said there was no evidence to indicate the Farak problem was any bigger than two cases she tampered with near the end of her career. That meant that Ryan’s clients whose cases with Farak dated a few years earlier could not get their convictions overturned. But he kept at it. He finally got access to the State AG’s files and Farak’s drug therapy records which showed that Farak had been using drugs from when she first started the job all the way through the end of her career. More importantly, his digging and research uncovered a trove of emails proving the AG’s Office lied at the initial evidentiary hearing and had failed to turn over tons of documents showing that all of Farak’s cases were compromised by daily drug use. In fact, Ryan’s client was one of the cases Farak was supposedly working on the day she did her crack-acid-crack binge.
In the Dookhan cases, Marx and the ACLU pursued an argument that arresting Dookhan was not enough – the State had to do more for all those convicted under her watch. So they filed a “Class-action” type petition for simultaneous vacatur of conviction for all those defendants. The State responded that each of the 21,000 plus cases had to be litigated separately. The legal fight took over seven years with the State opposing the petition at every step. The case went up to the Supreme Court of Massachusetts twice until the Court ruled that all of Dookhan’s cases had to be thrown out because the convictions were based on unreliable and perjured evidence.
That decision led Ryan and the ACLU to join forces to get the same result for the Farak cases. Eventually, 16, 000 or so of her cases were also subsequently dismissed. So together these lawyers were able to get over 37,000 cases thrown out. They exposed corruption and fraud in the State AG’s Office and they showed how fragile and prone to potential error the criminal justice system can be if not properly overseen and managed.
Carr’s focus on the work of Luke Ryan, Dan Marx and the ACLU reveals the value criminal defense lawyers have in society. So often they work tirelessly and anonymously to protect not just their clients but the system at large from the overreach of the State. Kudos to her for showing this side of criminal defense lawyers and the importance of the job being done right.
Catch “How to Fix a Drug Scandal streaming now on Netflix.
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