by Edmond Geary
Tainted scientific evidence used for criminal convictions has arrived wholesale in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts is hearing arguments about dismissing thousands of convictions that are based on faulty work by a former chemist in the state drug laboratory. She is now serving a prison sentence of three to five years after admitting she tampered with evidence.
Annie Dookhan worked at the lab from 2003 to 2012 and handled over 40,000 drug cases. Massachjusetts joins New York, Delaware and Colorado with this problem. Oklahoma blazed the trail years ago with Joyce Gilchrist. Oklahoma failed to learn its lesson, however, as it has made its new forensic laboratory a part of the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation, rather than a laboratory independent of law enforcement control and influence. It is created to make the police agency happy rather than pursue the scientific truth as they find it. Some observers believe these crime lab scandals will not end.
In Massachusetts, Ms. Dookhan’s problems were discovered when control of her lab was transferred to the state police from the state public health agency, so control by law enforcement may improve matters in Massachusetts, at least for the short term. She admitted she based some of her identifications of drugs on visual inspection rather than from conducting the chemical test she was supposed to do. She explained she just wanted to be productive. Supervision obviously failed.
The immediate issue before the court in Massachusetts is whether those convicted with evidence Ms. Dookhan handled are entitled to a presumption that their conviction is flawed and all those convictions set aside. One defendant succeeded in obtaining such a decision in his case from this court in March. As of last November, of the 968 who have had hearings in pursuit of setting aside their convictions on an individual basis, about 375 had been released from incarceration. The ACLU is arguing this approach of dealing with each case singly may take years, so it is asking the court to decide all of the cases en masse.