Massachusetts crime lab chemist’s actions could impact thousands of state and federal cases

Thanks to a shocking scandal involving the gross misconduct of a single chemist, crime labs around the country are finding themselves in a unique position: under the microscope of judicial, legislative and social scrutiny. While the Massachusetts example only involves a single one of the state’s eleven forensic evidence-processing labs, the one in Jamaica Plain, defense attorneys, civil rights activists and legal experts are concerned that the blatant failure of a single lab facility could be indicative of a systemic issue that taints them all.

In the summer of 2012, allegations came to light that a top-performing forensic chemist at the Jamaica Plain Drug Unit (a satellite location of the State Police Crime Laboratory system, itself a division of the State Department of Public Safety and Security) had failed to follow proper protocols in her handling of tens of thousands of drug samples during a nine-year tenure. The disgraced chemist, Annie Dookhan, has since resigned from the now-closed Jamaica Plain laboratory, but the results of her failures continue to trickle down the justice system; personnel shake-ups linked to the scandal include the lab’s director of chemistry and the state’s public health commissioner.

Dookhan was personally involved in the handling of more than 60,000 evidentiary samples comprising more than 34,000 individual drug crime cases coming through Massachusetts state or federal courts.  Earlier this year, it was discovered that Dookhan was involved in myriad legal and ethical violations at the lab.

Right now, the state is systematically reviewing the entirety of Dookhan’s caseload, beginning with those defendants who were either found guilty on the basis of evidence analyzed by Dookhan or are incarcerated awaiting trial for charges stemming from evidence she tested. As more information comes out about the extent of Dookhan’s activity at the lab, some defendants are already in the process of filing appeals or withdrawing guilty pleas. It is possible that hundreds or even thousands of verdicts might be overturned, but the real extent of the damage is still to be determined.

The Jamaica Plain lab has been shuttered while a team of scientific and legal experts from around the state attempt to sort through the confusion left in Dookhan’s wake. That alone will have an impact on myriad cases across Massachusetts since other state forensic processing labs will have to absorb extra evidence analysis, leaving many samples in limbo waiting to be tested.

The Dookhan case has made one thing abundantly clear: the criminal justice system is fallible. Mistakes are made, and sometimes the system is abused. Because of the purposeful actions of people like Annie Dookhan or the innocent mistakes of other lab techs, evidence can be tainted or misinterpreted. Only a skilled legal advocate has the skill necessary to interpret evidence test results and make informed decisions about how best to mount an aggressive defense. If you are facing drug crime charges, contact an experienced Massachusetts criminal defense attorney as soon as possible.