It’s one of the biggest crime scandals you never heard of. In 2013 chemist Annie Dookhan pleaded guilty to falsifying crime lab tests involving up to 40,000 people from 2002 to 2011. For this crime she was sentenced to 3–5 years in prison. You read that right. In response to her intentionally fraudulent work that may have resulted in tens of thousands of years of jail time for people who did not deserve it, in addition to the economic disadvantage of having drug crimes (or more serious drugs crimes than actually committed) on the records of people sacrificed to the correctional system Moloch, the judge gave her 3–5. Prosecutors were well aware of her activities. One email published during the trial showed the prosecutor suggesting what he wanted the result to be, which, surprise, Dookhan found.
A system of criminal activity of this magnitude should have had a mighty hammer brought down on it. My gut reaction is that this case is obviously offensive to any useful theory of justice and merits punishment on those grounds alone, but gut reactions are not good foundations for rule making. A stronger argument, the law and economics argument, is that punishments should be an efficient deterrent for crimes that are serious and/or difficult to detect. This pattern of crime was obviously hard to detect, as Dookhan got away with daily violations for nine years, enabled by other employees at the lab and prosecutors. And it is serious: 40,000 cases involving thousands or tens of thousands of years of prison time. It should be known by all crime lab employees that this is a behavior to avoid at all costs.
The Massachusetts Supreme Court could not completely reverse the damage, but it did rule in the right direction last year:
Massachusetts’ top court ruled on Wednesday that the state shares blame for thousands of drug convictions tainted by crime lab chemist Annie Dookhan, who admitted to faking test results over nearly a decade.
The ruling by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court will make it easier for people convicted in drug cases linked to Dookhan to win new trials, by removing one of the standards for reversing a guilty plea.
“We must account for the due process rights of defendants,” said the ruling, written by Justice Francis Spina. “In the wake of government misconduct that has cast a shadow over the entire criminal justice system, it is most appropriate that the benefit of our remedy inure to defendants.”
The ruling said that in all cases in which Dookhan was the lead or secondary chemist, defendants were entitled to a presumption that there was egregious misconduct by the state – one of the standards for overturning a guilty plea.
This is very important. It is not only the individual lab workers who should feel the wrath of fraud. We apparently need to ensure that prosecutors, too, have greater incentives to favor honest lab work. To see their efforts undone en masse must have elicited a great wailing and gnashing of teeth except for what I imagine to be the tiny minority who were relieved that this miscarriage of justice had been reversed.
I bring this up now after seeing Radley Balko tweet about a crime lab scandal-in-the-making in Omaha. My concern over fraudulent lab results is not paranoid libertarian venting. Because crime labs are another arm of the same system that oversees police and prosecutors, they have incentives to falsify results. Taking it a step further, while there are no solid numbers on the victims in these situations it’s hard not to believe that they are disproportionately poor and/or racial minorities. This is an issue that should have people marching in the streets. Maybe when the next one comes to light.