The crime lab scandal unleashed by Annie Dookhan’s criminal conduct in Massachusetts is finally resulting in some relief for defendants whose cases are implicated. According to a report in the Boston Globe, “[p]rosecutors across the state on Tuesday said they would collectively throw out more than 20,000 cases that relied on evidence handled by [the] disgraced drug lab chemist . . . .” This massive and unprecedented dismissal of convictions is an appropriate and hard-fought result that has been years in the making. And, while it may be the end of a nightmare for some individuals convicted under a cloud of misconduct, the case might be a premonition of what could come in other jurisdictions.
To orient readers unfamiliar with this scandal, here is a summary from a previous post.
Dookhan worked at the state’s drug lab in Jamaica Plain from 2003 through 2012, and produced utterly unreliable results. Although red flags were first raised about Dookhan’s work in 2009, she was allowed to continue testing evidence for criminal cases for two more years before she was suspended. Dookhan eventually was arrested and charged, pled guilty to tampering evidence, and was sentenced for three-to-five years for her crimes. She admitted that she had purposely falsified test results in many cases over the years she worked at the lab. Later, it emerged that she had been in direct touch with Massachusetts prosecutors; as the Boston Globe reported, “[s]he was also far from the impartial analyst her job description demanded, regularly doing favors for prosecutors while treating defense attorneys warily, asking prosecutors if she should even respond to their requests.”
The question that came on the heels of her conviction was what to do with the more than 24,000 criminal cases in which Dookhan played a role.
At the beginning of the year, the Open File analyzed a ruling the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts handed down to right the lab’s wrongs. The Court embraced “a middle-ground” solution of which we were skeptical. That skepticism was based on two related considerations: (1) the ruling relied on prosecutors to exercise their discretion to ensure a fair and expedient solution; and (2) those very prosecutors had fought tooth-and-nail against a broadly applicable remedy for years. The dissent from that opinion summarized the concern quite well: “without some basis for a reasonable belief that the district attorneys will follow through on the suggestion to dismiss thousands of cases with prejudice, the court does not inspire confidence in the success of the model.”
Suffice to say, the district attorneys delivered a pleasant surprise this week: they agreed to dismiss the overwhelming majority of implicated convictions. In the words of Anthony Benedetti, chief counsel of the Committee for Public Counsel Services, this was “a major step” by the district attorneys “as a result of the SJC decision.” The ACLU of Massachusetts put the final number of dismissed cases at 21,587; that is approximately 98.5% of the tainted convictions. Martin Healy, the Massachusetts Bar Association’s chief legal counsel, put it well: “The dismissal of thousands of tainted drug lab cases rightly puts justice over results. . . . It is a necessary and long-overdue outcome, given our criminal justice system’s responsibility to ensure a level playing field for all, regardless of the offense.”
It is vital to recognize that this outcome is both historic and appropriate. It is also worth bearing in mind two things. First, as Mr. Healy put it, the result was “long overdue.” Advocates—including public defenders and civil rights lawyers—battled for years to achieve the result. While prosecutors came through this week, it took litigation and some not-so-subtle pressure from the state’s high court to compel the result. When justice prevails, it typically does so with a great deal of heavy lifting. Prosecutors did very little until the bitter end.
Second, and this is important: this crime lab scandal is not a one off event. In fact, it is not even the only scandal in the tiny state of Massachusetts. Former crime lab chemist Sonja Farak pled guilty in 2014 to several crimes, including tampering evidence and stealing drugs from the Amherst lab. As Tom Jackman of the Washington Post observed this week, “The process of unraveling how many cases were tainted by Farak’s misconduct is continuing.”
Beyond the Farak mess, there are broader developments that will impede progress in the forensic science realm and heighten the risk that other crime labs will jeopardize fairness in the justice system. Nationally, Attorney General Jeff Sessions is taking steps to render review of forensic science practices non-independent. Many experts have concluded that establishing the independence of forensic labs from police and prosecutors is essential to ensuring our system has integrity. Yet crime lab employees remain disturbingly cozy with law enforcement officers, and the lack of independence raises the probability that more scandals will occur or already have and have just not been uncovered yet. Indeed, a less reported but major problem in the Dookhan scandal was her close and unprofessional relationship with prosecutors. Now that the federal government is reversing efforts that were being made to improve the accuracy and reliability of forensic evidence, states and localities shoulder a heavier burden to identify, resolve, and prevent future scandals like the one that just unraveled literally tens of thousands of cases.