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‘Completely unacceptable:’ Defense attorneys slam Bristol DA over drug evidence

Target 12

FALL RIVER, Mass. (WPRI) – The Massachusetts public defenders office is blasting the Bristol County district attorney over comments he made this week regarding criminal cases tied to a Fall River police officer who was improperly stashing illegal drugs inside his desk.  

The Committee for Public Counsel Services’ Public Defender Division in Boston issued a statement following a Target 12 interview with District Attorney Thomas Quinn III, criticizing the county’s top prosecutor for in their view downplaying the legal implications of actions taken by police officer Joshua Robillard.

As Target 12 first reported, the former Fall River detective was suspended after an internal investigation found hundreds of bags of heroin, cocaine, fentanyl and other opioids inside his desk and safes. A large portion of the illegal narcotics wasn’t documented in any way, and Quinn estimates Robillard’s actions could affect more than 50 drug cases currently underway in Fall River courthouses.

But Quinn isn’t convinced the improperly stored drugs will result in cases getting tossed out, and he hasn’t discounted the possibility of still calling Robillard as a witness, arguing the officer’s actions may have nothing to do with certain cases. Quinn also isn’t actively searching for any closed drug cases involving Robillard.

“That is completely unacceptable, and it disregards the fact that an untold number of people could be sitting behind bars with tainted convictions,” Randy Gioia, deputy chief counsel at the Committee for Public Counsel Services, said in the statement. “We implore DA Quinn to reconsider his stance. Otherwise he is ignoring the rights of our clients, the burden of the state and his duty as a prosecutor.”

Gioia likened the Robillard situation to the scandals involving Annie Dookhan and Sonja Farak, Massachusetts chemists who tampered with drug evidence. The chemists have since been convicted, and tens of thousands of drug cases have been tossed out across the state.

“We are still working through the fallout of that unprecedented fiasco,” Gioia said.

The district attorney’s office has rejected any comparison between the Robillard case and the Dookhan scandal.

Separately, the CPCS Fall River Office and Bristol County Bar Advocate Inc. sent a letter to Quinn last week requesting additional information about Robillard and other officers at the Fall River Police Department.

The requested information included investigatory records, an unredacted copy of the internal investigation into Robillard, and “a complete list of all cases” involving the former detective during his nearly eight years in the department’s Vice and Intelligence Unit.

“Often our positions are adverse, but we should be aligned on the side of justice and fairness, and we hope you can agree with that sentiment,” wrote Carlos Brito and Marc Roberts of the CPCS Fall River Office and Bristol County Bar Advocates, respectively.

The attorneys’ calls for greater transparency and accountability was echoed by Gioia, who likewise said Quinn needs to dig into all cases involving the detective – opened and closed – to determine how many might actually be affected.

“Defense attorneys need more information about every single case this detective touched – otherwise we have no idea whether the fallout from his outrageous behavior is 50 cases or hundreds,” Gioia said. “We can’t simply take the district attorney’s word for it. That’s not how the criminal legal system works.”

Quinn last month started sending letters to defense attorneys with clients currently facing drug charges involving Robillard, arguing each case needs to be addressed individually in court.

“We’re trying to be fair and straight about this,” Quinn told Target 12 on Tuesday. “Our position at this point is we are proceeding with the prosecution with these cases and we’ll address it one by one as the issues come up in court.”

The prosecutor also defended the Fall River Police Department, which has come under scrutiny multiple times in recent years for police misconduct.

Robillard was disciplined along with another member of the vice unit, Sgt. Luis Duarte. When asked about the undocumented drugs during the internal probe, Robillard told investigators that’s “the way he was taught” to handle drug evidence.

Regardless, Quinn said he still has confidence in the investigations coming out of the city.

“I don’t have any concerns,” Quinn said. “In any walk of life, in any profession, there are issues with individuals. Like anybody, those issues have to be dealt with fairly. That’s what we have done and will continue to do.”

In their letter sent prior to Quinn’s Target 12 interview, the Fall River attorneys asked the prosecutor to provide the requested information by Aug. 26, calling it a “great opportunity to show leadership, to offer reconciliation, and may, cause the implementation of change to avoid similar conduct in the future.”

Gioia’s statement, which came out after the interview, said his office was committed to drilling down into what exactly happened and how far the fallout might extend.

“When the drug lab scandal erupted, no one knew how bad it would be, but we fought until we got answers,” he said. “We are going to fight for answers here, too.”

Eli Sherman (esherman@wpri.com) is an investigative reporter for WPRI 12. Connect with him on Twitter and on Facebook.

Tim White (twhite@wpri.com) is the Target 12 managing editor and chief investigative reporter at 12 News, and the host of Newsmakers. Connect with him on Twitter and Facebook.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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