Recently, in a Boston courthouse, prosecutors from seven different Massachusetts counties decided to drop 21,587 low-level drug cases in what is being called the largest dismissal of wrongful convictions in American history.
At the center of the scandal is Annie Dookhan, a former chemist who worked in a state-run lab.
Dookhan’s scheme began to unravel more than five years ago when an officer determined that she tested 95 cases without signing them out. From there, it was discovered that she was forging signatures, testing more than five times the average number of samples a month, and misidentifying samples.
The irregularities caused Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick to close the lab.
When interviewed by police during an investigation into the lab, Dookhan admitted to falsifying records. Allegedly, she went as far as adding cocaine to samples when it wasn’t present. She was by all measures a rogue government chemist.
“This was a mistake that comes from the war on drugs,” said a lawyer with the ACLU.
In 2013, Dookhan pleaded guilty to 17 counts of obstruction of justice and eight counts of tampering with evidence. Since that time, prosecutors and defense attorneys have been fighting over which cases would be dismissed.
In January of this year, Massachusetts’ Supreme Court turned down a request by the ACLU and public defenders to issue a blanket dismissal of all cases processed by Dookhan.
Instead the court required prosecutors of the seven counties impacted to review cases and vacate ones that they could not retry based on the evidence. For all others, they would have to show the ability to retry them without Dookhan’s evidence, as well as alert defendants of their right to a new trial or retract guilty pleas.
The largest number of case dismissals happened in Suffolk County, which includes the City of Boston, where Suffolk County District Attorney Daniel Conley decided to retry 117 cases out of the 15,570 cases tested by Dookhan.
The crisis cost the State of Massachusetts $47 million to resolve and wrongfully incarcerated a currently undetermined number of people, some of whom have already completed their sentences.
In the past decade, eight states have suffered major crime lab scandals; however, this is the most widespread. Equity in the criminal justice system hinges on the accuracy of evidence and the integrity of those handling the evidence, especially in positions such as this.
As pressure on labs from prosecutors increases, lab workers have increasingly started to cut corners to increase their output. Currently, Massachusetts is facing another scandal as another chemist admitted to doing drugs while testing evidence.
Each of these situations demonstrates that reforms to standardize and strengthen procedures in drug labs are desperately needed, and stricter punishments for those who falsify and lie about evidence testing should be explored.