Forensic science failures have the potential to create miscarriages of justice, convicting the innocent and throwing deserved guilty verdicts into question. That’s the situation facing the Massachusetts State Police right now.
The state crime lab in question, in Jamaica Plain, handles cases for police departments all over the state. An investigation has revealed that a chemist employed at the lab for eight years violated important rules and protocols. The State Police, which took over the lab in July from the state’s Department of Public Health, says that the investigation continues, and could result in criminal charges. In the meantime, the lab has been shut down by order of the governor, and the division director of the lab who was responsible for the lab’s management and oversight has been placed on leave.
Before we can decide how the problems should be fixed, we will need to know more about what went wrong. But one thing that makes this crisis different from others that have periodically erupted in labs throughout the country is the reaction of law enforcement: instead of defensiveness, we have a recognition of the seriousness of the problem, and a vow to get to the bottom of it. According to an article in Boston Metro, “the breach in protocols put into jeopardy probably thousands of drug cases, authorities said, and there is the potential that some people are in jail after being wrongfully convicted.” State Police Colonel Timothy Alben did not mince words:
The ramifications … is the potential that we have people incarcerated or that have been wrongly prosecuted. The consequences here are a miscarriage of justice…I think we’re all furious about this. This is something that goes to the integrity of law enforcement. It goes to ethical behavior.
Perhaps there is less resistance here than usual, because the failures, and their potentially vast scope, is already known and to that extent can’t be denied. And perhaps there’s less resistance because the misconduct occurred while the lab was under the authority not of the State Police, but the Department of Public Health.
But we should still notice that the State Police are not brushing this off, attempting to minimize the damage, or pretending that it has no impact on law enforcement in the eyes of the public. Unfortunately, that attitude sets the Massachusetts State Police apart. It is simply all too rare.