Recommended laboratory procedures
September 25, 2012 8:03 PM   Subscribe

Thousands of drug-related convictions in Massachusetts may be challenged as investigators learn more about improper evidence handling and testing at a Department of Public Health laboratory. Over 50,000 samples related to 34,000 convictions were tested by a single chemist at the lab, who is alleged to have violated multiple laboratory protocols. Governor Deval Patrick's office has identified 1,141 inmates currently serving time in Massachusetts whose convictions may be affected by the investigation.

The chemist, Annie Dookhan, is alleged to have mixed samples from unrelated cases, broken the chain of evidence, and altered the weight of samples. Today, the Department of Public Health announced that Dookhan had claimed a master's degree in chemistry, but never enrolled in graduate study. While under oath in 2010, Dookhan claimed that she was responsible for the lab's overall quality control, which may open the door to challenges against cases in which she did not directly test evidence. Doubt about the validity of drug test results has already had an effect on Massachusetts judges.
posted by catlet (35 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite

 
A similar case in San Francisco is just now going to trial.
posted by telstar at 8:08 PM on September 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


Portugal’s Drug Experience: New Study Confirms Decriminalization Was a Success

Roughly half of America's problems could be resolved if we approached problems as 21st Century adults instead of 16th Century puritans.
posted by deanklear at 8:31 PM on September 25, 2012 [21 favorites]


Thank god she wasn't testing rape kits, I guess?
posted by emjaybee at 8:39 PM on September 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


Whoops!
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 8:39 PM on September 25, 2012


'Cause it's so hard to find ACTUALLY qualified biologists and chemists in Boston. *sigh*
posted by maryr at 8:52 PM on September 25, 2012 [12 favorites]


Now that's special.

So who exactly dropped the ball on this one?

Pot? Let 'em all out, unless they were caught selling on the school grounds.
posted by BlueHorse at 9:07 PM on September 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


Wow, from the first link in the 2nd paragraph:

State Police later were alerted by Dookhan’s co-workers that they would not testify under oath about the results of drug testing performed by Dookhan in the now-closed Department of Public Health laboratory....Administration officials said Dookhan’s supervisors missed obvious signs of problems. In 2004, for example, Dookhan processed 9,239 samples while her peers tested an average of 2,938 samples.

Also, reading this in the 2nd-to-last link:

...state prosecutors are looking into what role, if any, other chemists in the DPH lab may have had in mishandling evidence. Previously, public health officials had branded Dookhan as a “rogue” chemist acting alone.

reminded me that a similar "rogue unit" claim was made when something similar came to light in North Carolina's State Bureau of Investigation two years ago, on a smaller scale:

The North Carolina justice system shook Wednesday as an audit commissioned by Attorney General Roy Cooper revealed that the State Bureau of Investigation withheld or distorted evidence in more than 200 cases at the expense of potentially innocent men and women...Swecker's report paints a picture of a renegade unit at the SBI crime lab acting without rules and with misguided notions about the science behind blood analysis.

Great news post, catlet, thanks.
posted by mediareport at 9:12 PM on September 25, 2012


The good news is that this will cast a rightful and reasonable shadow of doubt on a lot of cases, and hopefully make people think about who we're throwing in jail, why we're throwing them in jail, and the actual fallibility of that evidence when it's not handled perfectly.

The bad news is that there will almost definitely be people who should receive a new day in court or to just be freed, based on the incredibly irresponsible things that were happening in that lab, but won't get either and will rot in jail instead.
posted by rollbiz at 9:17 PM on September 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


THIS IS WHAT YOU GET FOR ABUSING BSc CHEMISTS THAT CAN'T GET JOBS. BWAHAHAHAHA...

Oh shit wait, this is more intra-office political machinery and not something on the society scale. I think.
posted by Slackermagee at 9:47 PM on September 25, 2012


Pot? Let 'em all out, unless they were caught selling on the school grounds.

They should all be let out regardless of the drug involved.
posted by Justinian at 10:38 PM on September 25, 2012 [4 favorites]


In 2004, for example, Dookhan processed 9,239 samples while her peers tested an average of 2,938 samples.

That's not suspicious. She was testing amphetamines after all.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 11:53 PM on September 25, 2012 [5 favorites]


They should all be let out regardless of the drug involved.

Why? Just because this piece of evidence is tainted doesn't mean the other evidence against them wasn't overwhelming.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 11:58 PM on September 25, 2012


Well, yes, if there was other evidence sufficient to convict that's possibly another story. But I have no confidence that justice is the goal rather than keeping people in jail at all costs. The West Memphis 3 and so forth.
posted by Justinian at 1:42 AM on September 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


And many of these innocent people are raped in jail. And we like to believe we are a moral society.
posted by EnterTheStory at 2:49 AM on September 26, 2012


Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?
something similar came to light in North Carolina
I was interning at a local county's DA office here in NC while this was first broken in the news. Judges in criminal cases were flat out asking whether or not anybody from the SBI was involved in any way, while in session. Yes, they had all of the info in paper in front of them, but they were still asking it out loud in front of the defense and sometimes even juries.
posted by Blue_Villain at 4:56 AM on September 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


You get what you pay for. Shit salaries = shit personnel.
posted by Renoroc at 5:21 AM on September 26, 2012 [2 favorites]


Why? Just because this piece of evidence is tainted doesn't mean the other evidence against them wasn't overwhelming.

The other day, WBUR reported on one particular case of a career criminal petitioning to be freed because the drug evidence was used to elicit a guilty plea from him. Prosecutors were trying to keep him in prison because of an unlicensed firearm he had on him, but the whole plea had to be thrown out because of the drug evidence. According to the report, a guilty plea has to be taken as a whole or not at all - you can't use the plea to then detain the person for a part of the crime if the other parts are thrown out.

My limited understanding (from the last time I was called for jury duty) is that most criminal cases don't even make it to court - the accused plead one way or another and avoid a trial that could end up with even more severe penalties than what a guilty plea will get you. So if you're in a situation where you're caught by the police and they've got all this circumstantial evidence plus the lab identified drugs at your home then yes, a guilty plea seems to be the way to go. To turn around and then say, well, we got your guilty plea but now we can't say for certain you had drugs but you pleaded guilty anyway is definitely unfair.

Besides which, since we have this whole "innocent until proven guilty" thing, it seems a little backwards to assert that we can simply detain all of these no-longer-proven guilty people until we can reprove them guilty.
posted by backseatpilot at 5:22 AM on September 26, 2012 [2 favorites]


Stories like this are enraging.

Besides which, since we have this whole "innocent until proven guilty" thing, it seems a little backwards to assert that we can simply detain all of these no-longer-proven guilty people until we can reprove them guilty.

They are still proven guilty until a court specifically addresses their case.
posted by gjc at 5:47 AM on September 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


As much as this makes me sick, if one person can throw this size of a monkey wrench into the ongoing drug war machine, there's a silver lining. Of course, now all lab testing will be looked at with a jaundiced eye, not just drug testing.

And then there's "management." One of the Globe articles I read alleged that Dookhan's records showed that she'd tested literally thousands more samples than her colleagues. Red flag anyone? Do any managers actually know what their staff is doing?

On a related note, legalization of medical marijuana is on the ballot this year in MA. Simple possession of small amounts was decriminalized in 2008.
posted by Currer Belfry at 6:06 AM on September 26, 2012


You get what you pay for.

I know what will solve this problem: More tax cuts!
posted by Gelatin at 6:19 AM on September 26, 2012 [4 favorites]


Why? Just because this piece of evidence is tainted doesn't mean the other evidence against them wasn't overwhelming.

Think about that for a second. Without a lab report to indicate that the substance was actually illegal, how could there possibly be sufficient, much less "overwhelming" evidence that what you possessed was actually illegal? Drug test results are really the only way to be sure; there are things that are easy to mistake for illegal drugs based on ordinary observation. You can't prove someone guilty beyond a reasonable doubt without some sort of proof about the chemical composition of the substance.

True Story: I once defended a dug on some non-drug charges (I think possession of counterfeit bills, but it's been a couple years). When they arrested him, he told the cops, "There's this Pringles can in my trunk; it's full of stuff that looks exactly like crack, but it's not crack. It's coconut candy." Naturally, the police found it and charged him with possession of crack. I never got to see it to see how much it looked like crack because you know what, the lab report came back and it actually wasn't crack, so they dismissed those charges. Moral of the story is that lab reports are very, very important. The other moral of the story is to keep your crack looking candy in its original packaging, just to be safe.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 6:28 AM on September 26, 2012 [3 favorites]


What the hell? I defended a guy, not a dug,
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 6:33 AM on September 26, 2012 [2 favorites]


I have been following this story for weeks and I have never seen any discussion of Dookhan's rationale. Why did she fake all these tests? Why did she mix drug samples from different crimes?

Has anyone heard anything about why she did all this?
posted by alms at 7:13 AM on September 26, 2012


Think about that for a second. Without a lab report to indicate that the substance was actually illegal, how could there possibly be sufficient, much less "overwhelming" evidence that what you possessed was actually illegal?

If possession was all they were convicted of than by all means let 'em go.

If they had hotboxed their car and gone for a leisurely if somewhat swervy drive down the expressway with a baggie full of weed on the dashboard then I think there is still a pretty good DUI case there despite the inadmissibilty of the weed.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 7:38 AM on September 26, 2012


Besides Massachusetts and San Francisco, here's also a similar situation in St. Paul, where employees "relied on equipment that may have been clogged with cocaine.".
posted by afiler at 7:41 AM on September 26, 2012


So if you're in a situation where you're caught by the police and they've got all this circumstantial evidence plus the lab identified drugs at your home then yes, a guilty plea seems to be the way to go. To turn around and then say, well, we got your guilty plea but now we can't say for certain you had drugs but you pleaded guilty anyway is definitely unfair.

It's an interesting question actually. One police investigative tactic is to lie about the existence of evidence such as lab reports 1, and the courts are fine with confessions/guilty pleas that stem from that. It may come down to whether the defendant ever actually saw the lab paperwork.


1Has any mentioned to never to talk cops without a lawyer present in this thread? No? Well, never talk to cops without a lawyer present.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 7:56 AM on September 26, 2012 [5 favorites]


Why did she fake all these tests? Why did she mix drug samples from different crimes?

My sister works for the state crime lab and there is a limit to what she can share and what I can even tell you, but the weirdest thing about all of this is that the rationale appears to be that she liked being "good at her job" and did not have a lot of administrative oversight so she was lauded as being super good at drug testing, got plaudits from people, etc. I mean there is also some "she must have been a little bit mentally ill" aspect to it (this is my own speculation only and not something that my sister told me) because the likelihood of getting caught increased the more samples she "processed" and this would have been obvious. This is a giant mess. It's moving towards being less of a mess since the various drug testing labs in the state are all going to be under the umbrella of State Police moving forward (which is, if I recall, how this all got uncovered in the first place)who will oversee the whole thing. This was one of those cost cutting measure things originally (outsourcing to private labs) and surprise surprise it's come back to bite them on the ass.
posted by jessamyn at 8:20 AM on September 26, 2012 [4 favorites]


Why did she fake all these tests? Why did she mix drug samples from different crimes?

Maybe one of those tests involved a person who - otherwise caught red-handed - needed a little inside help to make sure the conviction she was sure to receive wouldn't stick? Messing up one test might draw suspicion, but messing up hundreds wouldn't leave any trail at all.
posted by three blind mice at 9:03 AM on September 26, 2012


Chemist in lab scandal told investigators: 'I messed up bad'
posted by Banky_Edwards at 11:10 AM on September 26, 2012


If they had hotboxed their car and gone for a leisurely if somewhat swervy drive down the expressway with a baggie full of weed on the dashboard then I think there is still a pretty good DUI case there despite the inadmissibilty of the weed.

A case for reckless driving, maybe. But a DUI with no evidence that the drivers were intoxicated? Really?
posted by Thoughtcrime at 2:12 PM on September 26, 2012


If they had hotboxed their car and gone for a leisurely if somewhat swervy drive down the expressway with a baggie full of weed on the dashboard then I think there is still a pretty good DUI case there despite the inadmissibilty of the weed.

There are policies and procedures for DUIs and "I saw you swerving" isn't one of them. Add to this that marijuana possession in small amounts is decriminalized in a poorly written and difficult to enforce law and the state of Massachusetts is just a weird place to be if you're up on (or in jail because of) drug charges these past few years.
posted by jessamyn at 2:20 PM on September 26, 2012


I'm not sure the baggie of weed is particularly helpful in a DUI case. You need evidence of intoxication, not possession; ideally, you'd want blood tests, but you could also get there with odor of burnt marijuana obviously recently smoked joints, or bad field test results, but unsmoked MJ in a bad doesn't get you there, to me at least.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 2:23 PM on September 26, 2012


Good think we don't have worries about the other 49 states.. 48, SC... 45...

I remember an article several years ago about how great new 'female' employees were at the crime lab. Perhaps there was a pressure to perform that got out of hand.
posted by sammyo at 7:40 PM on September 26, 2012


Annie Dookhan was arraigned today, after being arrested on two counts of obstruction of justice and one count of falsifying her academic records.
Judge Mark Summerville set bail at $10,000, which her attorney said she expected to post today. Once free on bail, she must turn over her passport and wear a GPS monitoring device. She can have no contact with her former colleagues and must be in her house from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. Another hearing was set for Dec. 3.
posted by catlet at 12:49 PM on September 28, 2012


Whoops, forgot to post the link to the story I quoted in the comment above.
posted by catlet at 12:50 PM on September 28, 2012


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