40,000 Defendants Hit by Crime Lab Fraud


Here’s yet another example of fraud in a state crime lab, this one affecting as many as 40,000 defendants in Massachusetts. A crime lab chemist is accused of faking drug test results and has been criminally charged, prompting a review of tens of thousands of cases.

Annie Dookhan stands accused of faking test results, tampering with evidence and routinely ignoring testing protocols.

With thousands of challenges still making their way through the court system, many in the legal community believe it will be years before the cases handled by Dookhan are cleared.

Just two weeks ago, a lawyer appointed by Gov. Deval Patrick to help create a database of Dookhan’s cases said more than 40,000 defendants may have been affected, about 6,000 more than officials first estimated.

“Forget having your day in court, forget having a lawyer – it’s taken us this long just to get a number on the number of cases that she tested,” said Matthew Segal, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts.

“It’s been very damaging to the integrity of the justice system,” he said.

Give Massachusetts credit, at least they’re reviewing the cases that may have been affected and have notified those who were convicted and their lawyers. They’ve already released hundreds of inmates and there may be tens of thousands more by the time this is all worked through. It’s time we recognized that our criminal justice system is in a state of crisis and needs a major overhaul.

Comments

  1. Alverant says

    Does Massachusetts have some kind of “wrongful imprisonment” compensation? Otherwise we’re looking at many many people trying to find a job and place to live potentially without the needed skills PLUS being rightfully POed about being locked up in the first place. I fear what will happen to them.

  2. daved says

    I think we need to make the distinction between people who may have been convicted despite being innocent and people who were convicted based (at least in part) on shoddy crime lab work, but who were, in fact, guilty. The Dookhan case has had quite a bit of publicity in Massachusetts, and rightly so. And it’s not just her; her bosses looked the other way for far too long, even though she was producing l;ab results in far greater numbers than any other chemist in the lab.

    However, a lot of the defendants probably were guilty. It’s mostly a question of whether the lab evidence is now so tainted that none of it can be used, even if prosecutors want to retry some of the defendants.

  3. psweet says

    While I’m sure that the appeals process will address the question of how dependent the convictions were on tainted lab work, you can’t make that distinction. “Probably guilty”, in our system, means NOT guilty — and rightfully so. There’s a reason why the state has to prove your guilt, and if they used tainted evidence to do so, they don’t get to just say “Well, we all know he’s guilty, regardless.”

  4. sbuh says

    #2

    I heard this explained in the context of the OJ trial, but when you have evidence thrown out that leads to an acquital of someone who is very probably guilty anyway, this is a feature, not a bug. It’s supposed to be an incentive for the criminal justice system to be scrupulous, because if they get shoddy then the guilty go free and it is their fault.

  5. says

    Annie Dookhan coulda had it all. Now, she’s sooooooooooooo busted. And I’ll bet that she was somebody’s poster child for “One of the GOOD ones” in the “OTHER” category.

  6. unbound says

    @2 (daved) –

    However, a lot of the defendants probably were guilty.

    A couple of problems with this.

    First is that this is obviously an opinion…we really don’t know what percentage were truly guilty vs innocent. The number of people that have been exonerated by DNA evidence that were on death row is staggering, not because of number, but because of the high bar of scrutiny that is supposedly in place for cases that we even consider killing them.

    Second is the dismissive attitude apparent in the statement. It reads more like “Meh, might as well just keep them locked up since most of them are probably guilty anyways.” It doesn’t really matter if it is 1 person in 1,000 or 1 person in 2 that is actually innocent. Every one of them deserves equal scrutiny because, until that review is accomplished, you have zero idea if that person is one of the guilty or one of the innocent.

  7. eric says

    It’s mostly a question of whether the lab evidence is now so tainted that none of it can be used, even if prosecutors want to retry some of the defendants.

    The lab results are now so tainted that they should be utterly ignored. If she was honest half the time, too bad. Now, if there is eviidence remaining in its original form, and its not degraded, then of course it should be tested as part of the investigation – getting back a true negative is actually the best way to help the victims show their innocence.

  8. Alverant says

    @daved
    Would you feel the same way if it was you or someone you loved who was put in jail due to bad lab work? We already know eye-witness accounts are faulty because of how people remember (and re-remember) things, about all we have left is physical evidence. If we can’t count on that, then ANYONE can find themselves being convicted of something they didn’t do.

  9. Doug Little says

    What kinds of cases are we talking here where a drug test is relevant for the prosecution? I guess what I’m trying to say say is what cases exist where the primary evidence would be a drug test and in these cases wouldn’t you exonerate the defendant upon finding out that the test result was tampered with?

  10. Cathy W says

    @Doug Little – my understanding is that she was testing physical evidence to prove that it was, in fact, a controlled substance.

  11. daved says

    I don’t think I expressed myself very well earlier. I am not arguing that all these convictions should be thrown out. They should be. And I don’t know whether the state of the evidence is such that any or all of the defendants can be retried — it may well be that the evidence has been so tainted or so disarrayed that not one of the defendants can be retried. If all of the evidence is potentially contaminated, it’s game over. I don’t know whether things are that bad or not.

    Please note also that I think that our current drugs laws are a disgrace and cause far more problems than they could ever solve. The only drugs I’m positive should have restricted sales are antibiotics and antivirals.

    I would think that almost any drug case would require lab verification that the substance in question being sold was, in fact, an illegal drug, though I suppose attempting to buy a controlled substance would be a crime even if someone sold you oregano instead.

    I do imagine that the majority of defendants were guilty, unless the police are massively incompetent or corrupt (I suppose that’s a possibility).

    I was originally mostly reacting to @1. I’m not sure how wrongful conviction or imprisonment would apply. If someone was, in fact, guilty, but got off because of bad lab work, and tried to sue, then what happens?

  12. left0ver1under says

    eric (#7) –

    The lab results are now so tainted that they should be utterly ignored. If she was honest half the time, too bad. Now, if there is eviidence remaining in its original form, and its not degraded, then of course it should be tested as part of the investigation – getting back a true negative is actually the best way to help the victims show their innocence.

    Unfortunately, once someone is convicted, even by false conviction, the “burden of proof” is dumped on the accused. “Reasonable doubt” now means the court assumes guilt instead of innocence, making it much harder for the wrongly convicted to get out. And when the “careers” of cops, lawyers, prosecutors and judges are endangered by letting innocent people go free, by exposing misconduct and fraud, you can guess which side the “tough on crime” types will be.

    In cases where innocent people have been convicted and murdered by the state – not executed, but murdered because they were innocent – the state refuses to check the evidence after death, refusing to admit mistakes or liability to the families. And that’s just of the ones we know about, who knows how many dozens, scores, or hundreds of others were railroaded into false convictions.

    http://listverse.com/2010/01/12/10-convicts-presumed-innocent-after-execution/

  13. eric says

    Unfortunately, once someone is convicted, even by false conviction, the “burden of proof” is dumped on the accused.

    Yes, in the standard appeals system. But Mass. has already released hundreds of people convicted using her testimony, so obviously they aren’t following the standard appeals system.

    I am also unclear what issue you’re taking with my post. Your argument would seem to support the idea that re-examining the raw evidence is a good thing. From what I gather, you’re complaining that the government won’t do what I think they ought to do. Is that accurate?

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