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Examining The 'Red Flags' In A Massachusetts Crime Lab Scandal

Former state chemist Annie Dookhan, left, stands alongside her attorney on Friday. She admitted faking test results in criminal cases and was sentenced to 3-to-5 years in prison.
David L. Ryan
Former state chemist Annie Dookhan, left, stands alongside her attorney on Friday. She admitted faking test results in criminal cases and was sentenced to 3-to-5 years in prison.

Former chemist Annie Dookhan began serving a 3-to-5 year sentence in a Massachusetts prison on Friday after pleading guilty to falsifying tests of drug evidence and helping to create one of the nation's largest drug lab scandals.

Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley says the state is taking steps to improve forensic testing:

"It is certainly lessons learned," she says. "We hope that we've made changes in the system that will mean this unique case will not happen again in Massachusetts."

Tens of thousands of criminal cases are potentially compromised and hundreds of people have been released from Massachusetts prisons because of the sloppy drug evidence testing, which went on for years.

Dookhan admitted that she didn't always test the drug evidence she said she did, and that she sometimes forged co-workers signatures. She didn't know how often that happened during her nine years at the lab, but records show she routinely tested thousands more samples than her colleagues. A state review determined that more than 40,000 criminal cases relied on Dookhan's testing. But some say that's just the beginning:

"We expect it could be many thousands more, tens of thousands more," says Anne Goldbach of the state's public defender agency. She says initial reports from an ongoing state inspector general investigation show that oversight at the lab was so lax that every case that used its testing is now in doubt.

"The potential could be 190,000" criminal cases affected, says Goldbach. "Part of that depends on what we learn about the entire lab. Right now the entire lab is still suspect."

So far almost 350 people have been released from prison and hundreds more have had their charges dismissed. State officials estimate it will cost hundreds of millions of dollars over the next several years to handle all the criminal and civil suits stemming from the scandal.

They say all of this was caused by one woman, a "rogue chemist" who simply wanted to be the most productive worker in the lab.

But Matt Segal with the Massachusetts branch of the American Civil Liberties Union doesn't buy it: "There is no way that Annie Dookhan could have committed this misconduct by herself. There were failures up and down. The documents show that that's what happened. The lab was in disarray, there was no accountability."

The rules about lab accountability in the United States are all over the map and there is not just one set of them or one agency enforcing them. The now closed Hinton drug lab where Dookhan worked was one of a handful of the roughly 400 publicly funded forensic laboratories in the U.S. that are not accredited.

Very few states require accreditation. The Massachusetts Department of Public Health, which ran the lab, says it was operating under nationally established recommendations for testing drug evidence. But forensic consultant Joe Bono, who helped write those recommendations, says they're only as good as those who enforce them.

"Obviously, either the red flags went up and weren't paid attention to ... or there were no red flags because the recommendations weren't being followed," says Bono.

A red flag that Massachusetts defense attorneys often cite is Dookhan's communication with prosecutors — several of whom called her directly about their tests. Prosecutors bristle at any suggestion they tried to influence work at the lab. They've also rejected calls to outright dismiss all cases linked to Dookhan — and they've asked the state's highest court for guidance on how to handle the cases she was involved with.

Essex County District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett says his focus is public safety, and he says many of the defendants face more than just drug charges. "It's become urban myth in my opinion that these individuals are languishing in jail," he says. "And it's just drugs only. It's not. Most of these cases have accompanying charges of violence."

Whether the Massachusetts scandal leads to improved drug testing remains to be seen. The National Academy of Sciences issued a report in 2009 saying that the increasing reliance on scientific tests in court demands stronger national oversight. It also recommended removing all testing from under the supervision of law enforcement to prevent any conflicts. Despite that, the testing in Massachusetts is now under control of state police.

Copyright 2013 WBUR

Deborah Becker