This four-part Netflix docuseries tells the story of two crime lab technicians who, for different reasons, indirectly caused the dismissal of some 35,000 drug-related criminal cases in Massachusets. Some of the other topics covered include prosecutorial misconduct, sentencing disparity, and judicial incompetence.
The two lab technicians at the center of this story are Sonja Farak and Annie Dookhan. They worked at different labs. Both made poor decisions that tainted their work in the lab, resulting in their test results being unreliable. In Annie Dookhan’s case, she falsified test results to increase her output. In Sonja Farak’s case, she conducted a majority of her tests under the influence of the very drugs she was testing.
The real heroes are the defense lawyers who went above and beyond in their search for the truth. Lawyers Jared Olanoff, Matt Segal, and Luke Ryan show what good lawyers can accomplish when given the resources, which in this case were provided by the ACLU.
Of the thousands of drug cases that were affected by the drug lab scandal, the one that stood out for me was the case of Ronaldo Penate. Police arrested Ronaldo for buying a $20 bag of heroin from an undercover officer. His attorney was Luke Ryan. Luke tried to get the case thrown out because the person who did the drug testing in Ronaldo’s case was Sonja Farak, who at the time was under indictment for possible tampering of evidence. It should have been a no brainer. But the prosecuting attorney didn’t throw the case out. And when Ronaldo turned down a plea deal that would have resulted in a three-year prison sentence, Luke had to go to trial without having Farak’s misdeeds presented to the jury. Ronaldo lost and received a seven-year prison sentence. Yet when Sonja ultimately pleaded guilty to her drug use, she received an eighteen-month sentence. Where is the fairness in those sentences?
The only issue I had with the series was the way the filmmakers and the lawyers painted those thirty-five thousand drug cases as wrongful convictions. It may be true that the majority of those cases depended on unreliable drug tests, but I’m also willing to bet that there were likely zero cases where an innocent person received a conviction due to a tainted drug test. A person released from jail or prison because of a technicality doesn’t suddenly become innocent. Sonja couldn’t have gotten high if the drugs weren’t real.
The series relies on reenactments, especially for Sonja Farak’s testimony. The actress who portrayed Sonja, Shannon O’Neill, deserves credit for her portrayal.