Sonja Farak is in the grip of a rubbed-raw depression that hasn’t responded to medication. It’s been like this forever, or at least since girlhood. She attempted suicide in high school and was hospitalized in college, but somehow soldiered through to graduate with high distinction from the Worcester Polytechnic Institute. A bright, curious kid who was passionate about science, she found a job at a state drug lab and settled down with a woman she met in her twenties. But even on her best days, she felt alien and unseen, a ghost floating through her own life. Now, at 35, she’s landed in a ditch. Her performance at work has fallen off a cliff, and she walks into nightly conflict at home, where her wife, disabled by a stew of mental ailments, spends her hours surfing the Web in a haze. Farak’s arms are pocked with welts from compulsive scratching; she’s been thinking a lot about killing herself, and driving rashly enough that she just might do it – if she doesn’t have a heart attack first.
But none of those things are her chief concern on this chapped winter morning in 2013. No, what’s eating Farak today, as she sits in a county courthouse in downtown Springfield, Massachusetts, is that she needs to get high this nanosecond. Since 2004, when she started pilfering drugs from her longtime place of employment – the Amherst crime lab of the Massachusetts State Police – her addiction to stimulants has galloped away and grabbed the reins of her life. She’s a chemist who performs forensic analysis of the street drugs cops bring in, running samples through complex machinery to determine the chemical makeup of each substance. Her findings, based partly on instrument data and partly on her veteran intuition, form the basis for criminal cases brought against people charged with coke and heroin sales in Western Massachusetts. Until recently, Farak has been a standout performer. In less than nine years, she’s helped send away between 8,000 and 10,000 defendants. The only thing more prolific than her output is her drug use. Farak’s been high since virtually the day she was hired.
For years, her drug of choice was liquid methamphetamine; she discovered a big bottle of it in the fridge of her lab. When she polished off the meth oil, Farak switched to cocaine, helping herself to big and small chunks of the seizures cops sent in. It was absurdly easy to do so. The Amherst site was decrepit and woefully mismanaged. It performed no routine audits and placed no cameras in the halls; employees had carte blanche access to the drug safe. So rudderless was the lab that Farak smoked crack in the restroom and cooked batches beneath the site’s one working fume hood. Legally unfit to drive home at night, she was nonetheless allowed to do sensitive tests on samples she’d smoked or snorted herself. Each time she did so, she committed two crimes: theft of narcotics from a dispensary and possession of a Class B drug. And though she wasn’t a cop, she shared a duty with them – to zealously protect each sample she tested as it made its way to court. On the countless occasions when she altered a drug – stealing a couple of grams here, a half pound there – and replaced the missing weight with ersatz powder, she committed a third, and most onerous, felony: tampering with evidence.
“This could just be the tip of the iceberg,” says one expert. “Prosecutorial misconduct is rampant in America.”
Meanwhile, Farak’s crack jones is burning a hole in her soul. She’s been smoking it 10, 12 times a day; the urges, she’ll later testify, are “ridiculous.” Finally, come lunchtime, she runs out to her car and beams up behind the wheel. She’s feeling a lot better when she returns in an hour to take the stand at a drug trial. But as she enters the courtroom, she’s stopped by state troopers and taken to a conference room. It seems someone’s finally noticed that coke has been wandering off from the Amherst evidence room. A search that morning turned up two torn mailers that contained what was left of the seizures. Those mailers, along with a makeshift crack pipe, were recovered from Farak’s desk by state cops.
The troopers at the courthouse try to get her talking. Farak will have none of it. She lawyers up and declines to let them search her car; she’s arrested and formally charged the next morning. By then, the state’s leaders are on wartime footing: This is the second massive scandal in five months. In August 2012, a chemist named Annie Dookhan was busted for faking tens of thousands of drug tests at her Boston lab, always in favor of the prosecution. Worse, when she was feeling especially helpful, she’d add bogus weight to a borderline sample, pushing the charge from distribution to narco-trafficking. (She seems to have been motivated by scorn for addicts, saying that she wanted to get drug dealers “off the street.”) Her crimes had blown the top off the state’s justice system. Countless convictions were cast in doubt, inmates jammed court dockets with appeals, and both the state’s district attorneys and attorney general’s office scrambled to protect their tainted verdicts. It was the worst-ever scandal in the state’s war on drugs. If the defendants in Farak’s cases were to learn of her crimes, there wouldn’t be enough lawyers on the Eastern Seaboard to staunch the run on the courts. Between them, the two chemists had potentially helped wrongfully convict more than 32,000 defendants.
But those defendants were never notified of Farak’s misconduct. In fact, five years after her arrest on January 19th, 2013, very few of the people she helped to imprison have been told that they’re the victims of state crimes. Instead, in the days after Farak was taken in and charged with drug theft and tampering, the attorney general’s office embarked on an egregious fraud. It lied to the DAs in Western Massachusetts, gave false information to two Superior Court judges and covered up documents that proved Farak’s years-long addiction, blocking every legal bid to view them. Lastly, it contrived to keep thousands of people in jail, even after the evidence came to light. “It was a catastrophic failure by the attorney general’s office, and calls into question the idea that prosecutors are beacons of fairness,” says Daniel Medwed of Northeastern University, author of Prosecution Complex: America’s Race to Convict and Its Impact on the Innocent. “There’s no accounting for what they did, and this could just be the tip of the iceberg. Prosecutorial misconduct is rampant in America.” That most of the people impacted dealt and used narcotics is a fact that no one disputes; they were street addicts tried in district court, where minor drug offenses are dispatched. But in America, even addicts have inalienable rights, the most basic being the right to a fair trial. Nowhere over the past five years has that liberty been more abused than in Massachusetts. This is what we’ve come to, almost 50 years along in the unwinnable War on Drugs: The accused can’t even get an honest shake in one of the bluest states in the country.
Luke Ryan is the Platonic ideal of the lawyer you call when you’re caught carrying weight. He’s the son and grandson of eminent judges in Massachusetts, a proud inheritor of his family’s commitment to protect the poor and afflicted. He’s also, at 45, a seriously late bloomer who spent the better part of a decade drunk or high. “I took very few sober breaths in college,” he says. “My best friend killed himself when I was 16. From that point on, I didn’t have a drugs-and-alcohol problem as much as a drugs-and-alcohol solution.”
At 26, he got involved with a church-ministry group devoted to racial justice and realized, with the clarity of the newly clean, that white privilege had probably kept him out of jail. He enrolled in law school at 30, graduated magna cum laude from Western New England Law and went to work for a small firm that gave him the latitude to defend the poor and sick. Those court-appointed cases bill at $60 an hour, but Ryan’s value to his employers lies elsewhere. Last year, Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly selected him as a Lawyer of the Year.
In 2011, Ryan was assigned a narcotics case involving a man named Rolando Penate. Penate, a Cuban exile in his mid-fifties who’d survived a hellscape youth – sent to prison in Cuba as an 11-year-old boy, he was tortured and beaten unconscious by guards before being administered electroshock – had stitched together a life on the streets of America by using and selling half-gram bags of heroin. “He had a sheet of priors, but it was addict stuff, like stealing scrap out of abandoned houses,” says Ryan. Busted for dealing $20 of smack three times to an undercover cop that fall, Penate was charged with 13 counts by the Hampden County DA. That’s no typo: That is standard practice on the part of prosecutors.
So mismanaged was the crime lab that employees had carte blanche access to the drug same and a chemist smoked crack in the restroom.
In the past 40 years, DAs have been given excessive powers to bully defendants into plea deals. Add-on “aggravators” – charges of selling in a school zone or near a public park; carrying a gun or knife while dealing, etc. – have been drafted in every state to get tough on dealers and maximize the time they serve in prison. Ninety-five percent of all convictions in America are plea-bargained in lieu of trial. Since the wholesale rewrite of our sentencing statutes began in the early 1970s, the total population of our prisons and jails has quadrupled to 2.3 million. Two-thirds of those inmates “meet medical criteria” for addiction, said the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse in its annual report last year. Eighty-five percent of drug arrests are for simple possession, meaning small drug weights for personal use.
But Penate insisted on fighting the charges. The state had hit him with a firearm count for an inoperable antique pistol in his basement, and he refused to plead to that. Ryan had no inkling of Farak’s misconduct when he took Penate on as a client. But he knew from prior cases what a hovel the Amherst lab was – no accreditation from the national board; no quality-control standards or annual reviews – and so he resolved to put the lab itself on trial. In pretrial motions, Ryan demanded the testing data from the chemist who examined the samples. It was, of course, Farak; she’d signed certificates, or “drug-certs,” for each of Penate’s three samples. The last of those assays was signed January 9th, 2012, a date that rings out for several reasons. First, that cert helped send Penate to prison for more than five and a half years – it was the only count on which he’d be convicted. Second, Farak was so high that day, she saw “colors swaying in the wind.” Third, it goes to the heart of the fraud that the attorney general’s office concocted.
Farak, who hasn’t been heard from since her release from prison (she served 13 months and was paroled in 2015), declined requests for comment through her lawyer. But Rolling Stone has obtained Farak’s grand-jury testimony, diaries of her omnivorous decade-long drug use, and treatment records furnished by her therapists. Those pages richly document the events of that day. On the morning of January 9th, Farak helped herself to multiple samples of coke. Before lunch, she was assigned a vial of liquid acid and downed some of its contents in the lab. For 10 hours, she was trapped in an R. Crumb comic. As she’d later tell a grand jury, she was “freaking out.” At one point, she found herself “crawling on the floor . . . trying to find crack, which I thought was there.” Nonetheless, she continued to test samples that day, one of them being Penate’s. Ryan learned none of this when Farak was arrested almost exactly a year later. Nor did he learn of it in early 2014, when Farak copped a plea and went to jail. Instead, he was force-fed a packet of lies by the attorney general’s office. “They announced, after a ‘thorough investigation’ by cops, that her drug use only went back four months [to September 2012],” he says. “Why four months? They said they’d talked to her colleagues, who said, ‘We thought she looked normal till last fall.’ ”
The untruths started within hours of Farak’s arrest. Martha Coakley, the then-attorney general who was locally famous for losing a forever-blue seat in the U.S. Senate to a one-time nude model for Cosmopolitan named Scott Brown, took to the podium to declare the Farak bust a “vastly different” matter from Dookhan’s. The alleged crimes were limited to “two samples,” she said, and no defendants’ due-process rights were violated. Ryan knew in his bones he was being spun. “When they arrested her, they found five and a half grams of coke and boxes of ‘lab papers’ in her car that they wouldn’t let anyone see,” he says. Obviously, the state was in panic mode: “They were freaked that this was Dookhan, Part II.”
At the other end of the state, a lawyer named Matt Segal was working to unwind Dookhan, Part I. Though Segal, like Ryan, is devoted to social justice and, like Ryan, drives a Prius to prove it (Prius is the official pace car of public-service lawyers), the two men aren’t much alike. Ryan, who shows for dinner in a sweatshirt and jeans, is the untucked product of the Pioneer Valley in rural Western Massachusetts. Earnest and uninflected, he feels lightly broken in, like a pair of good hiking boots. Segal, a son of suburban Maryland, is as crisp as new-bought broadcloth. He wears preppy suits, is funny in measured doses and bears a fair resemblance to Matthew Broderick when people still called Broderick “puckish.” Segal has a way with extended metaphor, which probably serves him well in court. “Pretend you have a chronic illness,” he says, “and you go see a doctor for treatment. He tells you, ‘There are three medications I could prescribe right now – but for you, I recommend . . . jail.’ That’s how we deal with addiction in America: Our cure for it is jail.”
Segal, 40, is the legal director of the ACLU in Massachusetts. He was lead counsel in the civil suit that blocked Trump’s Muslim ban and won a Massachusetts Lawyer of the Year award the year before Ryan did. While Ryan was launching his two-year fight to view the papers found in Farak’s car, Segal embarked on a war of attrition for the victims of Annie Dookhan. Dookhan, who briefly worked beside Farak at the Hinton State Laboratory in Boston, behaved like a bad detective in a lab coat. Rather than actually test seized samples, she looked at a given powder and pronounced it cocaine. Except when she called it heroin. Or meth. As with Farak, most of the cases were handled in district court, meaning the weights involved were minor. We’ll never know what fraction of them were actually drugs; the vast majority were never retested. (It is a crime to sell fake drugs but a misdemeanor that rarely results in jail time.)
“That’s how we deal with addiction in America,” says Segal. “Our cure for it is jail.”
Dookhan’s crimes were long suspected by her fellow chemists. They bitterly denounced her to their supervisors: Not only was she sending the presumed innocent to jail, she was making all her colleagues look bad. A crime-lab chemist is deemed productive if he or she tests 100 samples a month. Dookhan was doing 300, and seemed to have never encountered a single sample that didn’t test positive for drugs. But her superiors at Hinton shrugged off complaints and treated her like a superstar. When she was arrested in 2012, none of the bosses fell with her. Instead, they were fired quietly, and the lab was shuttered. That left only Dookhan to deal with prison – well, her and the 22,000 people she helped convict.
“Everyone – from Gov. [Deval] Patrick on down – said the right things when she was arrested,” says Segal. Even the DAs group issued a statement saying “they’d be proactive in identifying cases.” They weren’t. While defendants were filing petitions to get out of jail, the Essex County DA ran to court, suing to keep them in prison. It discouraged Dookhan’s victims from even seeking relief when the DA retried one defendant and nailed him with a longer sentence than he’d been serving. “That sent a shock wave through the defendant class,” says Segal. “If they challenged convictions that the state obtained through fraud, their reward could be even worse verdicts.”
Joining forces with Rebecca Jacobstein, staff attorney for the public defenders’ office of Massachusetts, Segal filed a couple of landmark lawsuits beginning in 2014. He asked the Supreme Judicial Court, the highest court in the state, to shield Dookhan victims from being punished for challenging their convictions. More, he asked that it compel DAs to either toss Dookhan verdicts or show that they were untainted. It had been two years since Dookhan’s arrest and the attorney general’s office still hadn’t even told him which cases she’d handled. “If you’d taken a plea and not gone to trial, you’d have no way of knowing she did your sample,” Segal says.
But while he won round after round in court – judges discouraged DAs from malicious reprosecution and ordered them to reveal the names of Dookhan’s victims and to notify them – months and years passed and few of the victims gained relief. So Segal and his colleagues reached out to the attorney general’s office, urging it to quietly intervene. “We asked that they be a force for good – tell the DAs to notify defendants,” says Segal, who knew that once those victims got the facts about Dookhan, they’d file their appeals by the tens of thousands and force the state to dump verdicts en masse.
That was in the spring of 2015, after a new attorney general had been seated. Maura Healey succeeded Coakley, who left office in January after running a failed race for the governor’s office. Healey, a progressive and a former civil-rights attorney, seemed a quantum leap up from Coakley; Segal nursed hopes that she’d be an ally. But talks with her staff dragged on through the summer, and a proposed summit with the attorney general’s office and the state’s DAs never materialized. Meanwhile, a series of bombshells landed on the courts: Ryan had unearthed big batches of proof that Farak’s crimes rivaled Dookhan’s – and that Coakley’s team knew and had buried the truth. That fall, the attorney general’s office went radio silent. Segal didn’t hear from them again.
Between the day of Farak’s arrest and the fall of 2014, Ryan had made a dozen requests of the attorney general’s office to view those papers seized from her car. Court motions, subpoenas, e-mails, letters – long after his fellow lawyers gave up hope, Ryan kept plugging away. He was hopelessly blocked, though, by Anne Kaczmarek, the assistant attorney general who controlled the evidence.
Kaczmarek had been tasked to run the attorney general’s criminal case against Farak. She was, to say the least, a regrettable choice. For one thing, she’d already been assigned the Dookhan case and was badly overmatched trying to unpack that nightmare when the Farak story broke. For another, Kaczmarek was a bottom-rung grunt in the criminal bureau. (Kaczmarek, who has since left the attorney general’s office to become an assistant clerk-magistrate in Boston, declined direct comment for this story.) Her responsibilities were vast. She had to plumb the bottom of nearly a decade’s worth of crimes at opposite ends of the state; reveal to relevant parties – defense lawyers, DAs and judges – how the evidence in her cases impacted tens of thousands of others; and establish, beyond a margin of doubt, when the crimes of the two chemists began. Ideally, her bosses would have tasked two teams of lawyers to split the cases and follow the facts where they led. Instead, they dumped it all on Kaczmarek and went about their business – then hid beneath their desks, claiming collective amnesia when the cover-up exploded years later.
Several weeks after Farak’s arrest in 2013, Kaczmarek got a note from Sgt. Joseph Ballou of the Massachusetts State Police. Ballou, a veteran detective assigned to the attorney general’s office, had just been handed compelling proof that Farak had tampered with drugs as far back as 2005: A seizure she tested then had been returned to cops weighing four grams less. She’d also swiped a large bag of Oxycontin and replaced it with obvious fakes. Kaczmarek wrote back, begging him to bury that information. “Please don’t let this get more complicated than we thought. If she were suffering from back injury – maybe she took some oxys?” Kaczmarek’s lawyer, David Rich, denies the implication that she “sought to limit the scope of the investigation.” Such a suggestion, he adds, is “belied by Anne’s actions in obtaining Farak’s conviction.”
Ballou was one of three cops who searched Farak’s car and found 300 pages of documents in her trunk. Taken together, they’re the diary of a drug-distempered mind – and the cloud map of a binge that stretched back years. Included in those pages was a series of filled-out worksheets for a substance-abuse program Farak attended. On one sheet (undated but clearly from December 2011), Farak jotted down which drugs she stole at work, then dutifully recorded the triggers that led her to use. There were a half-dozen worksheets from her outpatient group; a dossier she’d compiled about her therapist’s husband, whom she’d obsessed over for months; and a yellowing sheaf of stories about cops and chemists who’d been busted for stealing drugs in other places.
Every word in that cache was material to her case – and to the many thousands of people she’d helped imprison. The substance-abuse worksheets dated her addiction to 2011; the fact that she was in treatment meant that other people knew this and could testify that her drug use stretched back further. Ballou wrote Kaczmarek an e-mail titled “Farak Admissions.” It began, “Here are those forms with the admissions of drug use I was talking about . . .” to which he pinned scanned copies of diary pages. At this point, Kaczmarek’s duties were clear. She was required, by law, to tell her bosses of Ballou’s find, to notify DAs that their Farak cases were tainted and to demand a full probe of the Amherst lab by the state’s office of inspector general. Kaczmarek did none of these things.
A judge found that the attorney general’s conduct constituted “a fraud upon the court.”
Instead, per Superior Court Judge Richard Carey, who would later preside over an exhaustive inquiry into the attorney general’s office, “Kaczmarek improperly discouraged such an investigation.” In the spring of 2013, she wrote a friend at the inspector general, urging her not to investigate Amherst. “The notion that Anne had any authority to impact an investigation by the inspector general is absurd,” says Rich, Kaczmarek’s lawyer. But Carey found that she intentionally duped DAs about Farak’s drug use – she “omitted the mental-health worksheets” in her note to them – and lied to her own colleagues when telling them that she’d furnished all the evidence in the case. Then she decided to shrink the scope of Farak’s crimes to the four-month span before her bust. That lie, from which dozens of other big lies sprang, kept thousands of people unlawfully in jail. “Spending more time incarcerated due to prosecutorial withholding . . . cannot be cured by a new trial,” wrote Carey. The impact of her misconduct was “nothing short of systemic.” It constituted “a fraud upon the court.”
As Farak’s case moved forward in 2013, the first defendants filed pleas in Western Massachusetts, seeking relief in their convictions for drug cases certified by the chemist. Two were clients of Luke Ryan: Penate and a man named Rafael Rodriguez. One of seven kids born to a single mom in Puerto Rico, Rodriguez had been jettisoned at a tender age to fend for himself on the streets. In his early twenties, he landed in New England with no money, no guardian and no English. Like Penate, he did time for petty crimes – and like Penate, got addicted to heroin. In 2002, he met a woman named Madelyn Vazquez. The couple got off to a bumpy start: Cops raided their apartment and found small bags of dope. Rodriguez went to prison twice in three years, then cleaned up in rehab and came home.
By the time Rodriguez was released, in 2005, Vazquez had found God and gained her footing. She’d landed a good job at a greeting-card firm, moved herself and their young daughter to Chicopee, a working-class suburb of Springfield, and was spending her nights in Bible study at a nearby Pentecostal church. Rodriguez couldn’t find work because of his felony sheet but devoted himself to the job of stay-at-home dad. “He was wonderful with the kids, always clowning, doing dances – he was really just a big kid himself,” says Vazquez, who became his common-law wife. (They had a second child, Rafael Jr., in 2006.) “You couldn’t be with him and not be laughing,” says Millieonie, his straight-A-student daughter, now 15.
Rodriguez was clean and sober for four years, stopping by the clinic for his methadone dose. But being broke and jobless gnawed at his pride. One day, he met a guy looking for coke. The man pestered him with phone calls for weeks. Finally, Rodriguez relented and phoned a friend. Alas, he’d been set up: The buyer was a snitch who was working off a drug bust with the cops. For a deal in which he stood to make $50, Rodriguez was popped for possession-with-intent and took a five-year plea in 2011. In prison, deprived of methadone and his kids, he sank into depression and used again.
He’d been in jail 15 months when Farak, who had tested his sample, was arrested. Ryan got his sentence stayed in April 2013; he was released while contesting his guilty plea. That summer, C. Jeffrey Kinder, a Superior Court judge, was appointed to oversee all post-conviction petitions from Farak victims. A hearing was scheduled for early September. Its purpose was to establish when her drug crimes began, so that defendants who’d been impacted could appeal. Before the hearing, defense lawyers, including Ryan, subpoenaed Ballou and Kaczmarek – as well as any e-mails passed between them. It was at this point that the attorney general’s office made a second grave error: It appointed the greenest lawyer in its appellate bureau to fight off Ryan’s subpoenas.
Kris Foster, a former assistant DA in Boston, had been hired that summer. She was so inexperienced that she asked her boss how to write a motion to quash Ryan’s subpoena. She also failed to review all the papers found in Farak’s car and the exchanges between Ballou and Kaczmarek. Had she done so, Foster would have found the drug journals and seen how vital they were to the thousands of affected defendants. She knew those papers existed: She attended meetings where Kaczmarek discussed them with her bosses. Curiously, none of those bosses demanded to see the worksheets themselves. Instead, they took her word that they were irrelevant to people like Penate and Rodriguez.
Foster filed a motion to exclude the e-mails and anything regarding “medical . . . treatment of individuals.” She showed up at the hearing without the papers, arguing they were off-limits to defendants. But under questioning from the judge, Foster confessed that she hadn’t even viewed them herself. Kinder exploded, telling her to submit them within a week; he’d be the one to gauge their relevance. She went back with her tail between her legs, telling her bosses the judge had “yelled” at her. (Foster, who has since left the attorney general’s office for a job at the state’s beverage commission, has declined to comment through her lawyer.)
A week later, Foster wrote a letter to Kinder that was as false as it was vague. In it, she claimed that “after reviewing Ballou’s file, every document in his possession has been disclosed.” Note the telltale grammar: not “I have reviewed” or “my superiors have reviewed”; no one reviewed that file but Kaczmarek. On the basis of Foster’s letter, though, Kinder made two fateful rulings. First, that Farak’s drug use began in July 2012; no one whose case predated that month would have their verdict dismissed. Second, the state could block Ryan and other lawyers from seeing evidence in its case against Farak. That walled off those worksheets indefinitely – or at least until her case played out.
These were devastating blows to the thousands of defendants – none more so than Penate and Rodriguez. Penate, who’d already done a year in jail while awaiting his autumn trial, was sent to state prison to serve four more years for the drug-cert Farak signed while tripping her brains out. Rodriguez was imprisoned again in early 2014; Ryan got him out, on a second stay of sentence, but still the state kept coming for Rodriguez. (His drug conviction dated to 2011, a year before Kinder’s cutoff.) Had Kinder not been duped, he’d have seen the drug worksheets and demanded an immediate probe into Farak’s addiction. Instead, years passed before that probe was launched; another year passed before the findings came out; and a fourth went by before verdicts were dismissed. One of those dismissals was Penate’s. He was released in June 2017, having done five and a half years for a $20 bag of smack. Rodriguez’s case would have been tossed then, too – but he’d been dead for a year. Depressed and panicked about a third trip to prison, Rodriguez OD’d on his kitchen floor in April 2016. His wife found him dead, the syringe beside him. Millieonie ran home from school as his corpse was loaded out. Twenty months later, she hasn’t slept a night through. She lies awake in bed, writing love songs to her father on the iPad he bought her before he died.
It took Ryan almost two years to finally view the worksheets. Kaczmarek quit the attorney general’s office in July 2014 for the plum job of assistant clerk-magistrate; when Ryan filed his umpteenth motion, she wasn’t around to oppose it. That fall, he inspected the papers at the attorney general’s office. What he saw made the blood bounce off his skull. There were the drug journals he never knew existed until that day; Farak’s file that documented her obsession with her therapist’s husband; an NFL schedule (Farak was a Patriots fan who’d played boys’ varsity football in high school); and a sheaf of tortured ramblings about her wife. Ryan pulled his phone out, took photo after photo, then e-mailed the batch to himself.
That night, he started a letter to the attorney general’s office. It ran 11 pages, took 30 hours to finish and built an indictment, point by point, of gross misconduct. The response? Stone silence. The attorney general’s office said nothing to Judge Kinder about the facts it had buried. Nor did it inform the judges of the Supreme Judicial Court, which was hearing arguments in a benchmark case to nail down the timeline of Farak’s crimes. Ryan wrote to the court about the papers he’d just found; the judges, bewildered, called timeout. They strongly urged the state to launch a full-bore probe into Farak and the Amherst lab.
That order came down in the spring of 2015. It took the state a year to find what any competent cop could have learned about Farak in a week: that she’d abused drugs before she started at Amherst. Meanwhile, the attorney general’s office commissioned a probe of its own house. Healey, who seemed intent on learning why her predecessors withheld evidence, was a blue-chip reformer with a history of keystone wins. She’d famously defeated the Defense of Marriage Act in court, toughened the state’s ban on assault-style weapons and pushed for a major rollback of sentencing laws that sent nonviolent addicts to jail. “I inherited something that is significant and should not have happened,” says Healey of the Farak scandal. “I have been clear that the conduct of the two line prosecutors was unacceptable and beneath the standards I have set for my office.”
Regrettably, the retired judge she hired to vet her office outsourced that work to two state troopers. They served no subpoenas, put no one under oath and impounded no e-mails. Their 15-page whitewash, which cleared the attorney general’s office, accused only one party of ethical failures: Luke Ryan, for making “unfounded allegations.” Ryan’s colleagues were incensed. “If that report had been fair,” says Segal, “it would’ve nominated Luke for an award.” But Ryan wasn’t done swinging his hammer. This time, he’d put it through the wall of bricks protecting the justice system.
Sometimes, legal outcomes depend less upon lawyers than the temperament of the person who sits above them. For two years, Ryan had gone before Kinder, an ex-prosecutor who ran courtrooms with a master sergeant’s pacing and never strayed an inch below the surface. But in the fall of 2015, Kinder was promoted to Appeals Court; he was replaced in the Farak matter by Judge Carey. Carey was a different kettle of fish: impatient and irascible but determined to get the truth. “He took no nonsense,” says Jacobstein, Ryan’s colleague in the Farak appeals. “He wanted to know who knew what when, and why they’d told no one about it.”
In December 2016, Carey held a six-day hearing to excavate the facts about Farak. Ryan seized his chance: He called Kris Foster and showed her the letter she’d written to Kinder. She reluctantly admitted writing a “deliberately vague letter,” but said she’d done so under orders from her bosses. This sent shock waves around the court; no one was more astonished than Carey. For the next four days, he interrogated those bosses, haranguing every aspect of the letter’s production. Foster’s colleagues pleaded ignorance. Not one of them could recall having prior input or reviewing it before it went out.
Mass amnesia was the theme of the hearing. John Verner, the ex-head of the criminal bureau, said he was “pissed” to learn that the worksheets had been suppressed. Ryan reminded him that he’d headed in-house meetings to discuss how to withhold the papers; Verner said he didn’t remember what the meetings covered. (Verner didn’t respond to requests for comment.) Indeed, no one who’d attended – Kaczmarek, Foster and three supervisors – could recall a salient detail from those meetings. Appalled, Ryan called upon Kaczmarek.
He began by reading aloud to the court an e-mail she’d sent to Foster after Ryan had asked Foster to see the papers. “Why is that evidence relevant to his case? I really don’t like him,” Kaczmarek wrote back. Ryan let that sentence resonate a moment – then commenced to take her apart limb from limb. Regarding Ballou’s e-mail with Farak’s drug admissions, he shot holes in her story that she’d simply gotten the years wrong. (Kaczmarek said she “mistook” the date of the rehab worksheet for 2012. Ryan retorted that this required her misreading dozens of papers in those boxes from 2011, not just a stand-alone worksheet.) He asked about her e-mail to Ballou, begging him to bury Farak’s coke theft of 2005. That, Kaczmarek explained, wasn’t collusion but a “plea to God” – she feared “the avalanche of work” that would land on her if Farak’s crime spree stretched back years.
Ryan hammered away for hours. Kaczmarek denied meeting with Farak’s lawyer and promising her she’d suppress the drug journals; Farak’s lawyer contradicted her, citing chapter and verse of their huddle at the Hampshire County Courthouse. Kaczmarek admitted writing her friend at the office of inspector general, urging her not to probe Farak’s lab – but that, she said, was because her friend had young children, and it would be such a long drive for her to Amherst. When the hearing concluded, Ryan walked downstairs and saw Kaczmarek in the lobby with her husband. For a moment, he felt a twinge of sadness, he says. Then he thought of Penate, who was still in prison, and Rodriguez, dead and buried at 44.
In a single day, April 19th, 2017, almost 22,000 people had their convictions waived – it was the most in U.S. history.
Months passed before Carey rendered his findings on Farak. When his ruling came down, at the end of last June, it arrived in thunderbolts. For 127 pages, he savaged the attorney general’s office, saying it offered “patently baseless defenses” for withholding evidence and “deceived Judge Kinder” with the “ruse that [it] turned over documents.” Then he trained his fire on Kaczmarek and Foster. The scope of their misconduct was “systemic” and “intentional, repeated, prolonged and deceptive”; they’d “violated their oaths as assistant attorneys general and as officers of the court.” That left him no choice but the nuclear option: He dumped six of the 11 Farak verdicts put before him “with prejudice,” meaning they could never be retried by the state. Rafael Rodriguez wasn’t on that list: Having died before the ruling, he had his name erased from Carey’s docket. “It was really bittersweet to read that finding,” says Ryan. “I’d been fighting in his name since this tragedy started. To not see that name there – it still hurts me.”
It took Segal three years to get the list of Dookhan’s victims, and another year to finally win them justice. In January 2017, the Supreme Judicial Court delivered a landmark decision called Bridgeman II. It ordered the state to retry the falsely convicted or dismiss their cases in 90 days. That spring, every DA with relevant verdicts brought forth their lists of dismissals. In a single day, April 19th, 2017, almost 22,000 people had their Dookhan convictions waived – it was the most in U.S. history.
Last fall, Segal and Jacobstein filed a massive suit for the victims of Sonja Farak. “We argued that Bridgeman II wasn’t enough this time. Here you had misconduct by a crime-lab chemist and an egregious case of prosecutorial fraud,” Segal says. What he wanted, besides relief for all Farak cases, was a ruling so decisive that it would forever change the way the state handles wrongful convictions. As in Bridgeman, district attorneys were given a brief window to identify and dispose of Farak cases. On November 30th, their window closed. That morning, Segal picked up a client named Nicole Westcott and drove her into Boston for the decision. Westcott, seven months pregnant with her second child, was an addict well-established in recovery. Her childhood was hectic and riddled with loss; by her fifth or sixth foster home, she was dabbling with drugs and wound up addicted to heroin. For seven lost years, she ran the streets and was in and out of jail. Three of her convictions were Farak-related – and hung over her head long after she got clean and started over as a recovery counselor.
For the millions of people carrying drug convictions, the pain doesn’t stop at the prison gates. Rather, it’s outsourced to the probation system, where ex-cons are bled for their earnings. They pay fines, fees and drug-test costs that add up to thousands of dollars. Worse, they’re saddled with CORI sheets, or Criminal Offender Record Information. Wherever they apply for work or housing, they must acknowledge and show those files. Practically speaking, that makes it all but impossible to find safe lodging or earn real wages. Post-conviction, Westcott cobbled together a threadbare existence, pulling 60-hour weeks at fast-food jobs. Finally, she was hired by ServiceNet, a drug-treatment program that had counseled Farak.
In Boston, Westcott would learn if those convictions were getting tossed – and with them, the collateral damage to her life. When she got to Segal’s office, there were reporters and lawyers packing a conference room. At 10 a.m., some of the numbers were in. More than 6,000 cases were slated for dismissal; three of those cases were Westcott’s. Shaking with some amalgam of disbelief and joy, she stood and fielded questions from the press. Asked how the convictions had impacted her since prison, she talked about being kept from her five-year-old son and begging landlords “to give me a chance.” Someone asked about resentments, raising Farak’s name. Westcott paused to let a sob pass through. “I would try to help her. She suffers addiction like I do. I just want the state held accountable for what it did.”
So does Segal. He’ll press on with his suit, taking
the attorney general’s office to court next spring. What he’s seeking isn’t
merely the erasure of past wrongs, but real reparations for those like
Westcott. Regarding Foster and Kaczmarek, formal complaints were lodged against
them with the state’s Board of Bar Overseers, co-filed by Medwed, the Northeastern
professor, and the Innocence Project. Ryan is after a more fungible kind of
justice: He wants damages paid by Foster and Kaczmarek. This fall, he filed a
first-of-its-kind lawsuit on behalf of Penate. It’s virtually unheard of for
prosecutors to be charged with crimes, and the Supreme Court has granted them
blanket immunity from civil litigation. But Ryan is testing that protection: He’s
suing them not as prosecutors but as “evidence custodians” who
mishandled crucial evidence in Penate’s case. If his case survives dismissal,
it will be a widely watched set piece in the War on Drugs. What happens when
drug warriors cheat and lie – are they bound by the same laws addicts are, or
are they shielded from such trifles by their badges? “We’re going to get
some answers next year,” says Ryan. “But power concedes nothing
without a struggle.”