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.