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Meth Lab Chemist Who Spent Years Getting High On Job Creates Chaos For Massachusetts Justice System


A chemist testing drugs in a state crime lab in Massachusetts spent years getting high on the job. Sonja Farak was eventually found out. She went to prison in 2014. But the extent of her misconduct has only come to light this week with the unsealing of a report from the Massachusetts attorney general. It's all created a huge mess for both prosecutors and defense attorneys. From Boston, NPR's Arun Rath reports.

ARUN RATH, BYLINE: Sonja Farak told a grand jury that she first tried a lab sample of methamphetamine in 2004. By 2012, she estimated she was smoking crack 10 to 12 times a day, quote, "smoking at work, smoking in the lab, smoking at home, smoking and driving."

ANTHONY BENEDETTI: If you read the report in which it details her admissions in terms of what she was doing over that eight-year period, it is - it's astounding.

RATH: Anthony Benedetti is chief counsel at the Committee for Public Counsel Services. He and other public defenders are frustrated it's taken three years since Farak's arrest for these details to be made public. Benedetti estimates approximately 30,000 samples were affected by Farak's misconduct. And he wants all the convictions associated with those samples to be thrown out.

BENEDETTI: Essentially, justice delayed is justice denied. If people have to wait years to challenge their conviction, the effect - the negative effect of those convictions will continue to negatively affect their life.

DAVID CAPELESS: Simply deciding that time is a factor that should determine all this, I don't think that's just. I don't think that's fair, and I don't think that's the way it should be done.

RATH: David Capeless is the district attorney of Berkshire County and the president of the Massachusetts District Attorneys Association. He says throwing out the convictions is impractical and unwise.

CAPELESS: So we want to make sure we're doing the right thing on behalf of the public.

RATH: Doing the right thing, public defenders and district attorneys agree, is going to require a lot more time and money.

CAPELESS: And so I - I'm hoping the legislature can see that yes, this is a problem. Something needs to be done about it. But it requires an incredible amount of work just to determine what needs to be done so that we can do it the right way.

RATH: Aside from the monumental task of assessing the damage, one of the most compelling questions from this case is how on earth Sonja Farak could have been working as long as she was, as high and addicted as she was, performing a fairly complicated job. Dr. Sarah Wakeman is the medical director for substance use disorders at Massachusetts General Hospital.

SARAH WAKEMAN: Someone who's very intelligent and talented and skilled, you know, they preserve their work life for a long time. And that's usually - by the time they start having problems at work is when things have gotten really, really serious.

RATH: Things became too serious for Sonja Farak in the summer of 2012. Her supervisor noticed her once meticulous work and her personal appearance got sloppy. Farak was not caught until January 2013. She later pleaded guilty to tampering with evidence, stealing drugs and drug possession. Sonja Farak completed her 18-month prison sentence last year. Arun Rath, NPR News, Boston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Beginning in October 2015, Arun Rath assumed a new role as a shared correspondent for NPR and Boston-based public broadcaster WGBH News. He is based in the WGBH newsroom and his time is divided between filing national stories for NPR and local stories for WGBH News.