Signs of a broken system

February 20, 2013

Kay Sweeney explains what a scandal in Boston involving falsified drug evidence says about the corruption of the criminal justice system overall.

IN THE aftermath of the discovery that a Boston chemist falsified evidence in drug cases, the state public health commissioner has resigned and thousands of cases are being re-opened. As many as 34,000 people charged with drug crimes in Massachusetts may be affected.

Last September, 34-year-old Annie Dookhan stood in front of a judge on charges of falsifying drug evidence, including adding cocaine to a drug sample that previously did not include cocaine and increasing the weight of a drug sample.

The now-closed Hinton State Laboratory Institute in Boston processed samples from people searched and arrested throughout Eastern Massachusetts. Dookhan worked as a chemist at the lab since 2003, and for many years had been the lab superstar due to her ability to test more than 500 drug samples per month. By comparison, other chemists managed only 50 to 150 per month.

It turns out that her high productivity was due to the fact that she was only actually testing a fraction of her assignments. She confessed to state police that she would collect as many as 25 drug samples which looked similar, and then test only a few of them. If a few showed signs of cocaine or heroin, she labeled them all as having tested positive for these substances.

Annie Dookhan being arrested at her home
Annie Dookhan being arrested at her home

When other chemists double-checked her work and found discrepancies, she mixed up the samples, for instance, adding cocaine so one would test positive. Over her nine years in the lab, she was responsible for testing more than 60,000 drug samples. Thousands more tests may have been corrupted--Dookhan admitted to forging the initials of other chemists and skipping required quality checks on drug-testing machines.

The local media has portrayed the scandal as the result of one "rogue chemist" in an otherwise fine system of law enforcement. But there's more to the story. A Massachusetts public defender with years of experience defending clients--many of them charged with possessing drugs tested in Dookhan's lab--helped explain the details behind the scandal. The defender asked to remain anonymous for employment reaons.

There are several scenarios under which people were falsely charged with drug crimes during this scandal. Many of the accused did possess drugs, but in smaller quantities than what they were charged with, or different drugs altogether. The result was they got unfairly harsh sentences. Some of those charged didn't have drugs at all, but were arrested after police mistook medications or harmless substances, such as foot powder, for drugs.

Due to the sample-mixing that occurred in the lab, it's impossible to know how many people are innocent of the crimes for which they were convicted, even if they pled guilty.

The vast majority of people charged with drug crimes never go to trial. If a sample found on their person tests positive for cocaine, heroin, marijuana or another controlled substance, defendants are advised to plead guilty in exchange for a lighter sentence.

The consequences of having a drug conviction can be devastating. In addition to jail time and probation requirements, convicted drug offenders can have their driver's license suspended, be evicted from public housing, and lose financial aid in colleges or universities. Immigrants may also be deported or permanently lose the ability to apply for citizenship.

GIVEN THAT the justice system is supposed to be based on "innocent until proven guilty," and proving guilt is impossible after the scandal in Massachusetts revealed, it would make sense to throw out all the convictions connected to this lab. Unfortunately, Massachusetts is doing the opposite--instead, its overwhelming the legal system by reopening and re-examining thousands of cases.

More than 250 people imprisoned for drug crimes have been released, but only after they paid $200 to $500 bail each, and on the condition that they wear GPS-equipped ankle bracelets and adhere to a 10 p.m. curfew and other restrictions.

Public defendants in Massachusetts are overwhelmed, as they are supposed to go through a list of tens of thousands more people who aren't currently in jail, but who were convicted of drug crimes in Eastern Massachusetts within the past nine years. As cases are being reopened, courts are holding special sessions, calling retired judges back into service to deal with the overload.

It will take years for the legal system to sort through these cases. For some, justice is impossible--for instance, some immigrants have already been deported for drug crimes they may have not committed.

There were many factors that led to this crisis. For years, lab supervisors turned a blind eye when concerns about Dookhan's hyper-productivity were raised--or that she didn't have the master's degree in chemistry that she claimed to have. More disturbing was the fact that prosecutors cheered Dookhan on when she gave them the results they wanted.

In theory, crime labs are supposed to be independent, and official policy bars direct contact between chemists and prosecutors. These policies weren't enforced. E-mails between Dookhan and prosecutors were brought into the public eye by the Boston Globe. It became clear that Dookhan felt she was part of the prosecution team and told one assistant district attorney that her goal was to get drug dealers off the streets. She even came up with fake job titles for herself, such as "special agent of operations" and an "on-call terrorism supervisor."

But Dookham isn't the only one at fault. Prosecutors e-mailed her to ask directly about specific cases, and praised her when samples tested positive or were of high weights.

For instance, prosecutor George Papachristos e-mailed Dookhan to say he needed a particular sample of marijuana to weight over 50 pounds so he could charge those arrested with drug trafficking. "Any help would be greatly appreciated!" he added at the end of his e-mail. When Dookhan found that the sample weight 80 pounds, Papachristos thanked her and wrote, "Glad we are on the same team."

Another prosecutor, Allison Callahan, promised to take Dookhan out to a fancy bar after she found one drug sample was a high quantity of marijuana.

WHILE A state investigation is being conducted into the drug lab scandal, it doesn't go far enough. According to the public defender interviewed:

One big problem is that the attorney general's office is in charge of this investigation, and when people who are imprisoned based on this evidence start suing the state, the attorney general's office is going to be defending the state from these lawsuits. So they are in the position in which they want to minimize the damage as much as they can. They want to make this about a rogue chemist--they want to make this about one bad apple. They don't want to acknowledge the incredible lack of oversight.

This may be the largest scandal involving the legal system in Massachusetts in decades. But it is only one of many in the drug war. Only a few months after Dookhan was arrested, a chemist in a drug lab in Amherst, Mass. was charged with tampering evidence by removing drug samples for her own personal use.

In the war on drugs, there is pressure to find as many people as possible as guilty of drug crimes. And in Boston, as in other cities, the vast majority of people searched and arrested are people of color.

The role of racism in this scandal must not be underestimated. If 34,000 mostly white people in Boston were convicted based on faulty evidence, surely we would see more outrage from city officials, but because most victims are poor, Black and Latino, they are treated as guilty, regardless of the corruption behind their convictions.

In Massachusetts, there is a simple solution--recognize that the drug war has failed, dismiss the convictions, and redirect the funds allocated to process these tens of thousands of cases instead to programs which help people suffering with substance abuse to recover and reintegrate into the community.

Further Reading

From the archives