Workplace mishaps happens all the time within a business. Someone will file paperwork in the wrong spot, or information will be mistyped into a computer. Misconduct also happens, where employees will steal money from the till to help pay for rent, or will pocket a couple of USB drives to use at home.
But what happens when misconduct happens in the criminal justice system? Or when a person abuses their position to further their status within the field? Thoughts might turn to the police officers that are constantly on the news for abuse, but this case is about something entirely different: a crime lab chemist — someone whose sole job is to test samples and file reports, but whose role plays an integral part in the conviction of those on trial.
Annie Dookhan was a chemist with the Massachusetts crime lab for over seven years, from 2004-2011. During that time she ran “tests” on over 24,000 convictions, but was later found to have falsified most of them in an attempt to look better than her colleagues, potentially ruining thousands of lives. Currently, the state is planning on dismissing over 21,000 of those “guilty” convictions, some of them years after the accused have been released from prison.
When misconduct happens at a business, the process is relatively simple and easily resolved: the employee is fired and must reimburse the cost to the company (if necessary). But how is misconduct handled within the criminal justice system? When one woman’s attempt to work to the top has ruined so many other people who had to spend years in prison for her mistake, what can be done? Taxpayers and innocent parties are affected, and restitution is often neglected. How can corruption within the justice system be remedied and avoided?
Common Threads: Cheating the System
Unfortunately for many in the state of Massachusetts, Annie Dookhan was not the first of her kind. In fact another state chemist in Boston — this one by the name of Sonja Farak (and a separate case to Dookhan’s) — also falsified reports related to drug convictions; all while consuming the very drugs she was meant to be testing. Her tainted convictions stand at about 29,000 tests that could potentially be dismissed by the courts, although those numbers are still being counted.
Corruption within the crime lab world does not seem to be uncommon, and is not unique to just the people that work within the labs. In the state of Arizona, criminal defense attorneys had to fight the city of Scottsdale over a faulty machine that was used regularly for four years to test DUI blood samples. The machine was known to be malfunctioning by the technicians, but the city lab continued to rely on its results. Eventually, the courts ruled in favor of the defense attorneys and suppressed the results of the faulty equipment, but long after many of those cases had already gone to trial.
Cases like these have happened all over the country, in crime labs that are supposed to be handled and monitored by state officials. Yet results over a period of many years have been found to be false, contaminated, or from tests that were performed improperly — wasting the money and time of the courts, taxpayers, and those on trial. Of course, many of these findings are not given up willingly, and outside parties — such as the ACLU, defense attorneys, or other “justice-seeking” organizations — are forcing the hand of local officials to admit their wrongdoing and coverups. The Dookhan case took five years of pushing from the ACLU. How many other cases have yet to be revealed?
Still, it seems that the real “kicker” isn’t the amount of falsified tests that have passed through crime labs, but the lack of accountability on the part of those responsible. Annie Dookhan, for example, only spent two and a half years behind bars. Sonja Farak was given 18 months with a five-year probation. These sentences seem like hardly enough compared to the years of prison that innocent parties had to live through due to their faulty convictions.
Since the Farak and Dookhan cases have come to light, Massachusetts has attempted to crack down on their crime labs, ensuring that each chemist has a supervisor to check their work, and that every piece of evidence is properly documented, double checked, and catalogued. They have also split off their contracts with many of the companies that employed chemists like Dookhan, and instead only work with government labs; however, this might slow down many of the cases that need crime lab tests performed.
Changing How Science and Tech Result in Convictions
Within the criminal justice system, there are many niches and areas that need reform or adjustments. Prisons are overcrowded, police officers abuse their power, and judges allow bias to pass through their courts and decisions. Yet crime labs are often considered the foundation of justice. DNA evidence is seen as absolute, and both the media and popular opinion feed into the idea that crime labs are without question.
However, the reality could not be farther from that idea. Much of the modern day crime labs are bogged down with outdated machinery, overworked lab technicians, and months’ upon months’ worth of tests. DNA results can take days, fingerprints can be faulty, and access to files and records are limited for detectives. Despite the reality, much of the public has a distorted idea of what happens in these labs due to popular television shows and a lack of coverage on the truth; this is a phenomenon journalists have called “the CSI effect.”
One writer with the Atlantic, investigative journalist Conor Friedersdorf, stated:
“the existence of shoddy forensics has been so clear for so long in so many different state and local jurisdictions that the following conclusion is difficult to avoid: Neither police agencies nor prosecutors are willing to call for the sorts of reforms that would prevent many innocents from being wrongfully convicted and imprisoned, and neither the Republican nor the Democratic Party will force their hands. Ignorance of the problem is no longer an acceptable excuse.” [emphasis added]
It’s obvious that reform might not come soon, nor easily. One of the biggest hurdles, as Friedersdorf notes in his article, might be the potential conflict of interest on crime labs that work for the state or city directly. He notes another article, this one from the Washington Post in 2014, which exposes the monopoly many states have over lab technicians and tests:
“Crime lab analysts and medical examiners (and to a lesser extent DNA technicians) typically work for the government and are generally seen as part of the prosecution’s ‘team,’ much like the police and investigators. Yes, science is science, and it would be nice to believe that scientists will always get at the truth no matter whom they report to. But studies have consistently shown that even conscientious scientists can be affected by cognitive bias. A scientist whose job performance is evaluated by a senior official in the district attorney or state attorney general’s office may feel subtle pressure to return results that produce convictions.”
To top it off, many of these labs aren’t paid by the hour, but by the number of convictions. It’s no wonder that Dookhan’s corruption went unchecked for so long; it was a profitable move for her lab.
So how can change happen with this system? As with many other aspects of our society, the best option seems to be through legislation that increase funds for proper lab testing, creates a safety net for wrongful arrests, and ensures that bad chemists don’t slip through the cracks. Another option is to support the organizations that are actively seeking to right these wrongs. There is hope that, over time, the pattern will change. However the modern day crime lab is riddled with problems, oversights, and corruption.
Until legislation is introduced to crack down on these issues, it is up to the public and organizations like the ACLU to hold our institutions accountable. Dookhan and Farak are not isolated incidents, and their convictions only expose the levels of corruption that expand outwards from their misconduct: from the chemist, to the lab, to the officials and courts that allowed the convictions to pass.
By Katie McBeth
About the author:
Katie McBeth is a freelance writer out of Boise, ID. She enjoys reading teen novels, eating mac ‘n cheese, and attending indie concerts in small bars. Her love for reading is only trumped by her love for cats, of which she has three. She also has a dog, and he helps keep her grounded. You can follow her animal and writing adventures on Instagram or Twitter: @ktmcbeth.