We’ve seen it repeatedly throughout our history: When people’s rights are threatened, it’s the lawyers who step up to the plate. They fight hate, they defend our Constitution, and they give a voice to people who can’t speak for themselves. More than ever before, we need lawyers to help ensure that everyone’s rights are protected. Thousands of lawyers across the country are doing this. However, some are true Freedom Fighters and they deserve special recognition. That’s why each month, we will feature a lawyer who is really making a difference.
Today, we are proud to feature Adriana Lafaille, Matthew Segal, and Carl Williams of the ACLU of Massachusetts.
These three lawyers have made history. Their years of litigation and advocacy (Bridgeman v. District Attorney for Suffolk County) led to what is the single largest dismissal of wrongful convictions ever in the nation: 21,587 drugs cases involving former state chemist Annie Dookhan. For years, Dookhan falsified and fabricated evidence, causing thousands of people to be convicted of drug crimes based on tainted evidence and fraud. Many of those people went to jail. These lawyers, along with the national ACLU, the state public defender’s office, and the law firm Fick & Marx LLP, made sure that justice prevailed.
Individually, these lawyers are also heroes:
Adriana Lafaille is a staff attorney at the ACLU of Massachusetts. She has focused on immigration detention and immigrants’ rights issues. The Massachusetts Bar Association selected her as the 2015 Access to Justice Rising Star, and Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly’s 2015 “Excellence in the Law” event recognized her as an “Up and Coming” lawyer.
Matthew Segal is the legal director of the ACLU of Massachusetts. Matt was named a 2015 Massachusetts Lawyer of the Year by Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly, and in December 2016 he was elected to membership in the American Law Institute.
Carl Williams is a staff attorney at the ACLU of Masscahusetts. He is an activist and organizer on issues of war, immigrants’ rights, LGBTQ rights, racial justice and Palestinian self-determination. Carl is also a member of the National Lawyers Guild and has served on its Massachusetts board of directors.
Photograph courtesy of Rachel Tine.
Here’s an interview with Adriana Lafaille, Matthew Segal, and Carl Williams:
What will the dismissal of the drug convictions mean for the accused and their families?
The dismissal of these drug convictions is a major victory for justice and for those impacted by the scandal. It is regrettable that it required litigation and came years after most of the victims had completed their sentences and suffered from the collateral consequences of their convictions. But hopefully these dismissals will help thousands of people to rebuild their lives and move on from those consequences, which can include lost employment opportunities, lost housing, and even deportation.
How might this case help protect people in the future?
We hope this resolution will be a model for addressing wrongful convictions in Massachusetts and around the country. Here in Massachusetts, for example, we hope that adversarial litigation will not be necessary to help the thousands of people whose cases were tainted by the misconduct of former chemist Sonja Farak, who is alleged to have used drugs throughout her years on the job. The Commonwealth should act quickly to notify those defendants and dismiss their discredited convictions. Around the country, we hope that the innovative legal rules that grew out of the Dookhan litigation—especially the rule requiring prosecutors to identify cases for dismissal—will become the customary way to address convictions tainted by government misconduct.
Ronald S. Sullivan Jr., the director of the Criminal Justice Institute at Harvard Law School, described the dismissals as “wholly unprecedented.” He said,“There will be literally tens of thousands of people whose lives will change.” What is that like knowing that your work not only led to the largest dismissal of wrongful convictions in history, but that you deeply affected so many lives?
We are gratified to have achieved a meaningful impact on the lives of so many wrongfully-convicted people. Of course, the problem with helping people who are the victims of injustice is that something awful happened. The tainted convictions, and the failure of the Commonwealth to promptly and meaningfully address them, should never have happened. They are symptoms of an addiction to the war on drugs. So we hope that these dismissals will both help the people who had tainted convictions and also help thousands more, by showing that it is possible for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to quit its needless and harmful addiction to imprisoning people for drug offenses. If we continue to try to prosecute our way out of our drug problems, we will continue to devastate the lives of already oppressed and vulnerable people, including those who actually do suffer from addiction.
You’ve had so many successes besides the Dookhan case. Which one stands out the most for you?
We have been fortunate to be part of several cases that have made the law more just and have, we think, improved people’s lives. For example, we have been part of successful challenges to the criminalization of poverty in Massachusetts, and we participated in a landmark case in which the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court addressed the reality of racially discriminatory policing in Boston.
But the case that really stands out is our challenge to President Trump’s Muslim ban. We were all in federal court late at 2 a.m. on January 29, 2017, when we and our co-counsel won a 7-day halt of the ban. That order helped people to return to the United States, and we were glad to be part of a community of lawyers and activists around the country who struck early and powerful blows against the Trump Administration’s discriminatory actions.
In this day and age, what challenges do you face that you never faced before?
The current president campaigned on a platform openly hostile to Muslims and immigrants, and he has attacked our civil rights and civil liberties in ways that are unprecedented in recent memory. The ACLU has always been a multi-issue organization, and it must continue to respond simultaneously to threats in many areas, including racial justice, reproductive rights, immigrants’ rights, and LGBTQ rights.
What inspired you to become a lawyer in the first place?
Adriana: I became a lawyer because I wanted to fight for justice. As an immigrant, I had seen families in my community being separated by harsh immigration laws and experienced the climate of fear created by middle-of-the-night home raids.
Matt: I studied math and sociology in college, and it seemed to me that law combined the two; it was how society applied mathematical-style rules to shape people’s lives. I wanted to make sure that the law improved people’s lives and achieved justice.
Carl: The first time I visited a prison, I was both terrified and also quite happy. I was terrified because of all of the slamming doors and gates. However, I was happy to visit a loved one. This experience inspired me to know why places like this existed. I was four years old.
If you could give one piece of advice to other lawyers across the country, what would you say?
Listen to the voices of oppressed and vulnerable communities. And show up.
If an attorney wants to get involved in social justice, how can they get started?
There are a lot of ways to use your legal expertise for social justice. Visit aclum.org/attorneys to learn about becoming a cooperating attorney with the ACLU of Massachusetts. Offer your pro bono services to another organization, including those representing immigrants. Volunteer as a legal observer at protests. Show up to events and support the work being done in your community.