Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter once wrote that “all systems of law . . . are administered through men and therefore may occasionally disclose the frailties of men.” Those frailties surface in the administration of the criminal justice system. Police detectives afflicted with tunnel vision arrest the wrong people; prosecutors pursue criminal charges against innocent suspects based on mistaken eyewitness identifications; judges make poor judgment calls and admit unreliable evidence; and defense lawyers fail to advocate for their clients with the requisite zeal.
These errors are usually good-faith mistakes—gaffes attributable to some combination of excessive workloads, incompetence, inadequate training, limited resources, and cognitive biases. Good people make bad decisions. When that happens, we can focus on concrete reforms to allow those actors to maximize their performance.
But sometimes the errors don’t derive from good faith. Two examples of outright corruption in the criminal justice system appear in cases on this week’s appellate docket for the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, the highest court in the Commonwealth.
On Tuesday, the SJC will hear arguments in Commonwealth v. Ruffin, which is yet another chapter in the volume of litigation related to Annie Dookhan’s misdeeds. Dookhan is the disgraced former state crime lab chemist whose deliberate mishandling of drug tests may have affected more than 30,000 cases. Among other things, Dookhan admitted to “drylabbing,” that is, skipping screening tests and identifying items as drugs based on how they looked. In 2013, Dookhan pled guilty to all 27 criminal counts against her and received a sentence of three to five years in prison. Last month the authorities released her on parole. Assuming she satisfies the terms of her parole, Dookhan may soon put the case behind her and move on with her life.
Many of the defendants who bore the impact of Dookhan’s unconscionable behavior are still struggling to obtain redress. Consider Wayne Ruffin, a man who pled guilty to two criminal charges in 2007 related to allegations that he sold cocaine in Brockton and received a sentence of 18 months behind bars. Dookhan supplied the “drug certs” in Ruffin’s case—certificates verifying that the substances retrieved by the police were in fact cocaine. After learning of the crime lab scandal, Ruffin sought to undo his guilty plea. The gist of his claim is that had he known about Dookhan’s actions, he would not have entered the plea and instead proceeded to trial. The lower courts have denied Ruffin’s requests, in no small part because he pled guilty before Dookhan issued the drug certificates in his case. Even so, defense counsel would have likely advised against taking a plea prior to the certification process if information about Dookhan had emerged in 2007. It will be fascinating to see how the SJC resolves this appeal.
Later this week, on Thursday, the SJC will take up the high-profile case of Commonwealth v. Ellis. In 1993, Boston Police Department Detective John Mulligan was shot five times in the face as he slept in his car while working in Roslindale in 1993. An eyewitness identified nineteen-year-old Sean Ellis as one of two men near Mulligan’s car. Ellis has maintained his innocence. A jury convicted Ellis in 1995—after a third trial—with the bulk of the evidence collected by two BPD detectives who, unbeknownst to the jury, had been robbing drug dealers for a long time, occasionally in concert with Mulligan.
Crucial information about the detectives’ indiscretions apparently did not come to light until a few years ago. These disclosures about the nature and extent of the corruption helped provide the basis for a post-conviction request for a new trial, and in 2015 Superior Court Judge Carol Ball granted Ellis a new trial. The rationale behind the ruling is that, way back when, a jury armed with all of this information might have reached a different conclusion and, therefore, Ellis deserves a new trial. The Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office is challenging Judge Ball’s decision on appeal in the SJC.
While the Ruffin and Ellis cases are very different, a common thread binds them: Should convicted defendants whose cases were tainted, even if indirectly, by the blatant misconduct of government actors receive new trials?
I believe the answer is yes. Even if Ruffin pled guilty before the drug certificates were issued, even if some of the evidence about the BPD detectives’ corruption was known to the defense at previous stages of the Ellis case, a cloud of corruption hangs over both matters. The best way to clear the skies is to allow for new trials. The Ruffin and Ellis cases do not just disclose the frailties of humans; they show the collateral damage wrought by intentional misconduct in our criminal justice system. It is up to the courts to let the sun shine through and permit new trials, regardless of their eventual outcomes.