Signs of a broken system

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

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

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.

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.

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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

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

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.

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