Forensic Testing Questions Remain After Dookhan Sentence
BOSTON — The former state chemist blamed for compromising thousands of criminal prosecutions by falsifying tests on drug case evidence is now a criminal in the eyes of the law.
After pleading guilty to every charge, Annie Dookhan began a three- to five-year prison sentence at MCI-Framingham Friday.
But lingering questions persist about state oversight of forensic testing.
‘The Entire Lab Is Still Suspect’
Dookhan admitted that she didn’t always test the drug evidence she claimed to have tested, and that she sometimes forged coworkers’ signatures — though she didn’t know how frequent that practice was.
Records show that in her nine years at the state lab, she routinely tested thousands more samples than her colleagues. A state review determined that more than 40,000 criminal cases relied on Dookhan’s testing. But some say that’s just the beginning.
“We expect it could be many thousands more, tens of thousands more,” said Anne Goldbach, of the Massachusetts public defenders agency.
According to Goldbach, initial reports from an ongoing state inspector general investigation show that oversight at the lab was so lax that every case that used its testing is now in doubt.
“The potential could be 190,000 [affected cases],” said Goldbach. “Part of that depends on what we learn about the entire lab. Right now the entire lab is still suspect.”
So far, almost 350 people have been released from prison. State officials estimate it will cost hundreds of millions of dollars over the next several years to handle all the criminal and civil suits stemming from the scandal. They say all of this was caused by one woman: a “rogue chemist” who simply wanted to be the most productive worker in the lab.
But Matt Segal, with the Massachusetts branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, doesn’t buy it.
“There is no way that Annie Dookhan could have committed this misconduct by herself,” said Segal. “There were failures up and down. And the documents that we’ve seen show that that’s what happened. The lab was in disarray, there was no accountability.”
The rules about lab accountability in the United States are all over the map, and there is not just one set of them or one agency enforcing them. The now-closed Hinton drug lab where Dookhan worked was one of a handful of roughly 400 publicly funded forensic labs in the U.S. that are not accredited. Very few states require accreditation. State Attorney General Martha Coakley says the drug lab has been controlled by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health and the state police, and it is now accredited.
“It is certainly lessons learned,” said Coakley. “We hope that we’ve made changes in the system that will mean this unique case will not happen again in Massachusetts.”
Earlier in the week, another chemist was placed on administrative leave because of questions about her resume. A state police memo obtained by WBUR showed that chemist Kate Corbett was disciplined for claiming that she had a bachelor of science degree in chemistry when she did not. Corbett told her supervisors that she had enough credits to earn a second degree in chemistry but she actually had credits for only a second major in chemistry. Her primary major was sociology.
Massachusetts defense attorneys often cite Dookhan’s communication with prosecutors — several of whom called her directly about their tests. Prosecutors bristle at any suggestion they tried to influence work at the lab. They’ve rejected calls to outright dismiss all cases linked to Dookhan and they’ve asked the state’s highest court for guidance on how to handle the cases she was involved with.
Essex County District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett says his focus is public safety, and that many of the defendants face more than just drug charges.
“It’s become urban myth, in my opinion, that all these individuals are languishing in jail, and it’s just drugs only. It’s not,” said Blodgett. “Most of these cases have accompanying charges of violence.”
Whether the scandal leads to improved drug testing remains to be seen. The National Academy of Sciences issued a report in 2009 arguing that the increasing reliance on scientific tests in court demands stronger national oversight. It also recommended removing all testing from under the supervision of law enforcement to prevent any conflicts. Despite that, the testing in Massachusetts is now under the control of state police.