“How to Fix a Drug Scandal” documents the riveting details about how a criminal justice travesty unfolded in Massachusetts, and how important a dogged defense attorney was in righting the wrongs that were done.
Two Massachusetts drug lab technicians — Sonja Farak and Annie Dookhan — were caught tainting evidence in separate drug labs in different but equally shocking ways. Farak was getting high off the confiscated drugs police sent her way before replacing the evidence with fake drugs. Meanwhile, Dookhan wasn’t even testing her drugs at all; she just claimed everything sent her way tested positive so that she could apparently be thought of as a prolific worker.
The two ultimately both went to prison for their tampering.
However, as the docuseries shows, their crimes were not self-contained. The drug testing the technicians mishandled was used to convict tens of thousands of defendants on drug charges. While state prosecutors attempted to minimize what the two drug technicians did, several lawyers put up a fight for their convicted clients.
Luke Ryan is the main lawyer featured in the docuseries. He represented Rolando Penate and Rafael Rodriguez, both who were sent to prison because of drug lab certificates that Farak signed. Ryan didn’t think their drug convictions were fair — nor the thousands of other convictions based on drug certificates from the two technicians — and fought against the state of Massachusetts.
“I really wanted this piece to show how important attorneys are,” Erin Lee Carr, the filmmaker behind the docuseries, told Oxygen.com. “Lawyers are incredibly crucial in maintaining any sort of levity inside the criminal justice system.”
Who is Luke Ryan?
Justice runs in Ryan’s blood. He grew up in Massachusetts as the grandson of a judge and also the son of a judge.
“I think the air I breathed growing up, particularly due to my father, was kind of filled with this kind of sense of certain rights and wrongs,” he told Oxgyen.com, adding that his father impressed upon him that the state can yield a lot of power against an individual.
“Whenever I see a complaint and it says United States or Massachusetts versus, it feels like a miscommunication, like ‘you’re no longer a part of us,’” he said. “I feel like my job is to bring them back into the community somehow and anytime anyone is accused of a crime there’s a dark cloud gathers above them and it just is there until the case is over.”
Ryan didn’t start off as a lawyer. Instead, he spent much of his younger years living the same lifestyle as many of his clients.
“I took very few sober breaths in college,” he told Rolling Stone in 2018. “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.”
By age 26, he cleaned up his act and got involved with a church-ministry group that was woke to racial justice. Through the group, he realized that white privilege kept him from becoming a convict — a sentiment he still feels, he told Rolling Stone,
“I'd like to say ‘there but for the grace of God, go I' but I think it's more ‘there but for the grace of privileges I received due to my race and socioeconomic status, go I,’” he said. “I was permitted to have this kind of sowing of wild oats stage in life that so many of my clients are not given so I think, in addition to having empathy, there’s a debt that I feel.”
“I have an opportunity to live a certain kind of life and if I don’t use it to advocate on behalf of people who are doing things similar to what I did, that would be a misuse of a life experience,” he said.
He enrolled in Western New England Law at age 30, and after graduating magna cum laude began working for a small firm where he could work for the underprivileged. His work led to him being named Lawyer of the Year by Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly in 2017.
His work on the 'Scandal'
As the docuseries showed, Ryan was not satisfied with the attorney general office’s claim that Farak only began using drugs six months before her 2013 arrest. He began digging around and made requests to the Massachusetts Attorney General’s office for more documents, which were initially blocked. He learned later that some in the office thought of him as a pest. When he finally got his hands on the documents, they described him as a nuisance who they should avoid giving evidence to.
Eventually, his relentless digging paid off. He discovered that Farak’s drug use went as far back as 2005 and that the attorney general’s office allegedly tried to bury that by withholding evidence.
He claimed that the office’s former attorneys Kris Foster and Anne Kaczmarek engaged in prosecutorial misconduct and he took them to court. A Supreme Judicial Court decided in 2017 that both Foster and Kaczmarek committed "fraud upon the court,” the Boston Herald reported at the time.
As a result of that finding, in 2017 more than 20,000 of the convictions that were worked on by Dookhan were dismissed. In 2018, all of Fayak’s cases were also dismissed — including the convictions of Ryan's clients. In all, about 35,000 criminal convictions were thrown out. It became the largest dismissal in American history.
While Ryan was not the only person that helped the dismissal happen, Carr told Oxygen.com that she doesn’t think it would have happened as fast as it did without his fighting.
“I think it would have maybe eventually gotten there with the ACLU, she said. “I just don’t know if the Farak dismissals would have happened as well.”
Ryan said he understands that a docuseries cannot include everything but told Oxygen.com he found it important to note that defense attorney Rebecca Jacobstein, who was included briefly in the docuseries, played a pivotal role in the dismissals.
Ryan called her an “unsung hero” who “really framed what happened as a fraud on the court.”
Where is Luke Ryan now?
As the docuseries noted at its conclusion, he has filed a civil suit seeking damages for the wrongful conviction of Penate. He told Oxygen.com that while he filed the suit in 2017, it is still in the discovery phase.
“It’s been a slog,” he said.
He said he continues to defend other clients as well.
As for the docuseries he said, “I think it started a lot of important conversations about things that I care very deeply about so that’s extremely gratifying and I think it was an extremely well made film. I hope it leads to some systemic change.”
Ryan has no pending criminal cases with the attorney general’s office and hasn't had to work with them since, he said. Rather than other prosecutors regarding him as a pest going forward, he said he hopes his work has served “as a cautionary tale for prosecutors.”
“My hope is that people begin to see that there is real danger for withholding evidence,” he told Oxygen.com.
Furthermore, Ryan said he hopes that the docuseries and other conversations will lead to the end of America’s war on drugs.
“When we come out on the other side of this [coronavirus] pandemic, we are going to have to make some choices about how we dig ourselves out of this hole," he said. "This war on drugs is a luxury we are no longer going to be able to afford due to the incredible economic resources devoted to it and the human cost as well."
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