Rogue Lab Shakes 34,000 MA Drug Convictions

Posted on: February 18th, 2013  |  No Comments

Recently the prosecution of drug cases in Massachusetts has been shaken to its core with the discovery of a chemist who allegedly mishandled drug samples. Annie Dookhan testified in 2010 that she was in charge of quality control in a Massachusetts crime lab, where she worked for nine years. State police closed the lab on August 30, 2012, alleging that Dookhan may have deliberately mishandled drug samples and failed to follow protocols. Defense attorneys believe her actions raise questions regarding over 60,000 drug samples handled by the lab.

Any person who’s been convicted of a drug crime in the last several years whose drugs were tested at the lab [is] very potentially a victim of a very substantial miscarriage of justice.

John Martin

At this time there is no suggestion about what motivated Dookhan to tamper with evidence but inadequate oversight played a major role. As reported by the NPR’s Tovia Smith, the crime lab used to be run by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, but, like many other states, had been taken over by the state police. Daniel Medwed, a law professor at Northeastern University commented about the risk of combining these two agencies. “There are often implicit pressures [on crime lab technicians] to help out prosecutors — to testify in cases in a way that supports their perceived colleagues in law enforcement,” Medwed says.

According to Drug War Chronicle’s Phillip Smith, Public Health Commissioner John Auerbach, “fell on his sword” resigning with a public statement. It was clear there was “insufficient quality monitoring, reporting and investigating on the part of supervisors and managers” at the lab, which his department had overseen before it was transferred to state police as part of a budgetary realignment. “What happened at the drug lab was unacceptable and the impact on people across the state may be devastating, particularly for some within the criminal justice system.” Auerbach said in the statement. “We owe it to ourselves and the public to make sure we understand exactly how and why this happened.”

In response to this crisis, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick chose David Meier to lead the investigation of 34,000 criminal cases possibly linked to drug samples allegedly mishandled by Dookhan. Meier, a former prosecutor, is now a private defense attorney and is well respected by his peers. Huffington Post’s Denise Lavoie reported that Meier has turned over a list of 690 people currently serving sentences in state prisons and 450 who are currently serving sentences in county jails based on evidence that Dookhan handled. The list does not include thousands of people who are currently awaiting trial, are on probation or are serving federal sentences in cases in which Dookhan tested drug samples.

In Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts, 557 U.S. 305 (2009), the Supreme Court determined that criminal defendants have a Sixth Amendment right to cross-examine experts who conduct forensic tests in their cases. In doing so, the Court explained that “forensic evidence is not uniquely immune from the risk of manipulation.” Melendez-Diaz, 557 U.S. at 318. But the Court went on to note:

The defense has the right to call its own witnesses to show that the chain of custody is not secure. But that does not mean it can demand that, in the prosecution’s case in chief, each person who is in the chain of custody–and who had an undoubted opportunity to taint or tamper with the evidence–must be called by the prosecution under the Confrontation Clause. And the same is true with lab technicians.

Melendez-Diaz, 557 U.S. at 339-340.

With the miscarriage of justice that has come to light in Massachusetts the Court’s reasoning in this regard now holds little merit. Dookhan, who according to NPR’s Tovia Smith, used a series of aliases when tampering with the evidence, may have been discovered long ago had the prosecution been required under the Confrontation Clause to call each person who was in the chain of custody. As the investigation of this Massachusetts scandal proceeds and questions are raised about what happened to cause this travesty, attorneys in other jurisdictions should use this as a reminder to be hyper-vigilant about challenging the credibility of forensic results.

On Monday February 4, 2013, ex-chemist Annie Dookhan plead not guilty to the accusations. Cape Cod Times’ Bridget Murphy.

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