The Massachusetts Appeals Court today reversed a man’s conviction for heroin trafficking when it was discovered that disgraced former state chemist Annie Dookhan had analyzed the purported drugs and the prosecutor did not present sufficient independent evidence to establish the substance in question was heroin. The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Rodriguez.
In April of 2007, the Boston vice squad executed search warrants at the housing development where the defendant lived. The cops had warrants for the defendant’s apartment, his car, and his person. The cops used a key discovered in the defendant’s car to open a locked bedroom door in his apartment. Inside, the police found nine individually-wrapped “fingers” of what appeared to be heroin. A finger of heroin weighs 10 grams. The cops also found more than $13,000 in cash and a digital scale in the defendant’s room. A Suffolk Superior Court jury convicted the defendant of trafficking in heroin.
Annie Dookhan was a Commonwealth-employed chemist who went to prison after pleading guilty to witness tampering, obstruction of justice, and perjury. She lied about testing substances for the presence of narcotics and tampered with some samples. Her criminal conduct has led to countless convictions being reversed. In this case, Dookhan was the primary chemist who was assigned to analyze the substance found in the defendant’s apartment, and she concluded the substance was heroin. After it was discovered that Dookhan was tampering with evidence, the Commonwealth sent the substance obtained from the defendant’s apartment back to the state lab and had it retested by another chemist, who also concluded it was heroin. At trial the defendant argued the second test was irrelevant, because Dookhan could have added heroin to the substance she tested (which meant any future test by any honest chemist would have revealed the presence of heroin). The Commonwealth then argued that Dookhan’s test result should be trusted because a police officer had “field-tested” the substance before sending it to the lab. A field test involves an officer exposing a substance to a chemical solution, which will result in an interaction establishing whether the substance is an illegal narcotic. The problem with introducing the results of a field test is that no appellate court in Massachusetts has ever concluded that such tests are scientifically reliable. Courts consider a variety of factors in determining whether a test is scientifically reliable, including whether the scientific community generally accepts the test and whether the test has been subject to peer testing. When a party is objecting to the introduction of a scientific test, the judge will conduct a pretrial hearing. At the hearing, the proponent of the evidence is obligated to establish the validity of the test. In this case, the trial judge erroneously allowed the result of the test to be admitted to the jury, notwithstanding a police officer’s testimony that a field test is a “preliminary” test rather than a “scientific” test. Because the defendant objected to the introduction of the test, the Appeals Court reversed his conviction and sent the case back to superior court for a new trial.