Fraudulent practices and bad science are nothing new at crime labs unfortunately. There have been many recent cases which highlight this. One of the most notorious has been the case of Annie Dookhan. According to the New York Times:
Ms. Dookhan pleaded guilty in 2013 to 27 counts, including perjury, obstruction of justice and tampering with evidence, and was sentenced to three to five years in prison plus two years of probation. Prosecutors said that during her nine years at a drug lab in Boston, where she processed drug samples seized from suspects, Ms. Dookhan failed to properly test samples before declaring them positive, mixed up samples and forged signatures and lied about her credentials. Ms. Dookhan’s lawyer said she was trying to be the best chemist on staff.
According to some estimates, up to 40,000 cases may have been tainted by her.
Here are five ways the entire criminal justice system is compromised:
1. Innocent People Can Easily Get Locked Up
Dookhan didn’t even test many of the samples before declaring them positive. In DUI and drug cases, much of the case itself hinges on the result of the forensic test. Sending absolutely innocent people to jail is not what we want to do, ever.
2. Guilty People Go Free
Bad science in crime labs creates a cloud of doubt over all of the reports they generate, even those which were correct. Because those results are doubtful, many cases, in which the defendant was actually guilty, would lack the evidence needed to get a conviction. In a telling passage, the New York Times states:
More than 300 people were released from prison when their convictions were voided because of the tainted evidence. One defendant, Jamell Spurill, who was rearrested shortly after being released, told the police that he loved Ms. Dookhan because her actions had gotten him out of prison. Another, Donta Hood, was charged with first-degree murder a few months after his release.
3. It Shatters Public Confidence
The criminal justice system should be protecting us. So why all the lies, fraud, and secret games? Who should we believe? Why can’t they just be honest?
4. Gives a Bad Name to Science
Many of these forensic tests, if done properly, can be very accurate. Unfortunately, all too often crime lab technicians fail to follow the proper procedures, thus calling their work into question. Science (when done correctly) leads us to the truth. These scandals give a bad name to science.
5. Turns Criminal Justice in a Witch Hunt
There is a common mentality among people working in crime labs that it is their jobs to catch the “bad guys.” This is a very dangerous mind set. Their focus should be on producing a result which is valid and correct in all respects after declaring limitations of their opinions, NOT a result that helps their buddies on Team Prosecution in the district attorney’s office.
The system is broken, plain and simple. This is something we all need to be aware of and something we need to fix as a society before you and I are “burned at the stake.”