Posts Tagged ‘Annie Dookhan’

Here we are, more than a month after chemist Annie Dookhan, formerly of the Massachusetts State Drug Laboratory, entered a guilty plea to producing fraudulent forensic testing results, and went to prison.  The scandal, potentially involving tens of thousands of cases, has resulted in the release of hundreds of convicted persons. All of this has reportedly cost the state of Massachusetts more than 8 million dollars, and the state has budgeted almost 9 million more for the continuing damage.    Readers have seen coverage of the Massachusetts scandal, and several others, here and here and here.

But Dhookan and the Massachusetts Drug Laboratory are far from alone.  According to a report by National Public Radio, there have been  twelve major crime lab scandals in the U.S. in just the last two years.  With all of this damage  — to individual cases and defendants, to state and local budgets, and to the public trust — occurring all over the country, how have policy makers at the national level responded?

Well, they haven’t.  At least not yet.

Almost five years after the release of the National Academy of Sciences’ report “Strengthening Forensic Science in the U.S.: A Path Forward,” which recommended (among other things) the establishment of national industry standards for forensic labs and a National Institute of Forensic Science,  as well as the independence of every crime lab from police agencies and prosecution offices, none of this has happened.  Nor is accreditation of laboratories required.

According to National Public Radio, Senators John Cornyn of Texas and Patrick Leahy of Vermont “are working to introduce legislation this year” which could address some of these problems.  But nearly five years after the NAS report, and with the parade of crime lab scandals  continuing without let up, why has it taken five years to get to this very preliminary point?

Readers, would mandatory national standards help?  Are they appropriate?  What about requiring accreditation?

If you are from outside the U.S., does your country set mandatory national standards for crime labs?  Is accreditation required?

The time has long since passed for us to do something about this set of problems in the U.S.  We just can’t afford the damage to the credibility of our criminal justice system and the costs of  reviewing cases and releasing convicted prisoners — some of whom may very well be guilty, but whose cases are tainted.

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An article posted on Stateline (published by the Pew Center on the States) on November 26, “Forensic Science Falls Short of Public Image,” nails many of the problems with forensic science in the U.S.  But readers will have to go beyond the references to “the CSI effect” and how this troubles police and prosecutors.  For those who read further, the real problems surface: the inherent weaknesses in traditional (non-DNA, non-chemistry based) forensic methods, along with lack of supervision and protocols, occasional outright fraud, lack of judicial knowledge about these issues, and prosecutorial unwillingness to recognize these problems.

“In fact,” says the article “the whole field of forensic science is currently in flux, following a top-to-bottom review in 2009 by the National Academy of Sciences. The report cast major doubt on many common forensic techniques, calling them unscientific and error-prone.”  According to Judge Donald Shelton, a trial court judge in Michigan’s Washtenaw County who has written about forensic evidence, it is particularly troubling that judges don’t seem to understand just how serious the problems with forensics are, even though the National Academy of Sciences report could hardly have been clearer.  “One of my concerns, “he says, “is that these forms of evidence that we know from the National Academy of Sciences report aren’t valid, are still routinely offered and routinely admitted by judges.”

I do have to take issue with the writer’s comment that Annie Dookhan, the lab analyst who seems to be responsible for most or all of the huge numbers of fraudulent lab tests in Massachusetts was “led” to do this by overwork, underfunding, and case backlogs.   I bet that her fellow analysts who did not falsify lab results in the same lab under the same conditions would beg to differ.  But the article (part one of a two-part series) is still well worth a read.  In addition to the on-target points about the science of forensic science, it also discusses a number of the recent crime lab scandals in Massachusetts, St. Paul, Minn., Texas, and Detroit.