A Massachusetts lab technician has admitted to faking results, tampering with evidence and routinely ignoring agency test protocols when processing tens of thousands of law enforcement lab tests. The technician, Annie Dookhan, was known for being the most productive chemist in the Massachusetts Department of Public Health laboratory and the go-to chemist for prosecutors trying criminal drug cases.
Prosecutors now believe that Dookhan’s stellar reputation was built on fraud. In 2012, the chemist informed Massachusetts state police that instead of properly testing all substances turned over by law enforcement, she would occasionally only test a fraction of the substances, yet verify that all of the substances were illicit drugs. Despite her admission, Dookhan has pleaded not guilty to all charges.
Dookhan’s fraudulent testing has led to more than 330 inmates being released from custody in the last year, while over 1,100 cases have been dismissed due to tainted evidence. In the wake of the scandal, one manager at the lab and the state’s public health commission have resigned, while another manager at the lab has been fired.
In August, a lawyer appointed by Massachusetts’s governor to help create a database of Dookhan’s cases reported that more than 40,000 defendants may have been affected. The state’s public defender says the number of affected cases could be even higher because management and protocol lapses at the lab may have allowed other chemists to cut corners or falsify results. With thousands of challenges still making their way through the court system, many believe it will be years before all of the cases tainted by Dookhan are cleared.
Apart from seriously damaging the credibility of the Massachusetts justice system, Dookhan’s fraud has led to numerous violent crimes occurring after inmates were released from custody because their cases may have been tainted. In Boston’s Suffolk County, of the 240 defendants released because of the scandal over 60 have since been arrested on new charges. In one case, an inmate released from prison two years early murdered another man in a dispute over drugs. Two other inmates were killed in gang disputes shortly after their early release, while another was rearrested for exchanging gunfire with state police.
Dookhan’s scandal does make one point clear: the U.S. justice system in its entirety, including law enforcement, the court system, prisons and ancillary resources such as lab testing, cannot handle the enormous workload that the war on drugs produces, and corners are being cut on all fronts as a result.
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