Blurring the Lines: What Happens When Forensic Scientists Break the Law

Transforming Annie Dookhan from an honorable forensic scientist into a criminal was simple. She merely had to forget her ethical obligation to do proficient and professional work. She had to cut corners to make herself look good, lie, cheat, concoct facts, and then certify intentional falsehoods during sworn courtroom testimony.

Annie Dookhan was an ambitious, smart, talented and personable forensic chemist. She had a reputation as being “superproductive” and “supercompetitive”. She put in long hours.  She had exceptional lab experience. In 2003, she joined the William A. Hinton State Laboratory in Massachusetts, and was assigned to help catch up on the backlog of drug samples that needed to be tested for criminal proceedings. She certainly augmented that task: in her first year at the lab, she tested 9,239 drug samples, more than three times the norm for other chemists in the lab. The next year, her total of 11,232 tests was astounding — but appreciated.

So how did she do it?  When asked, she pointed to lots of unpaid overtime, skipping lunch to keep up the pace, and a dedication to “helping out. In an email to a district attorney, she claims modestly that it “is just in my nature to assist in any way possible”. Still, colleagues in the lab were suspicious. Lab supervisor Peter Piro later testified that he rarely saw Dookhan in front of a microscope. When some of her reports identifying cocaine turned out to be heroin, she would withdraw the report, correct the language and resubmit it. There were many other indicators that something was seriously amiss, but internal politics and the heavy workload deflected suspicion by her supervisors. When concerns by peers finally came to the attention of one supervisor, that person simply reviewed her reports without retesting samples and proclaimed Dookhan’s work to be “just fine”.

 

Reliability, responsibility and ramifications.

In any scientific lab, procedure, temperature, time and equipment must be maintained under exact specifications to make the tests reliable, authentic and meaningful. Scales must be regularly calibrated. While this is obvious in academics and industry, it is absolutely true in the criminal justice system where the slightest error can create doubt, and jeopardize a case against a criminal whether guilty or innocent.  It is crucial that someone accused of a crime be confronted with accurate and fully inspected evidence. Further, the court must trust the expert witnesses who conduct the tests and swear under oath that the samples were indeed accurately tested and results authenticated. With faulty evidence and untrustworthy experts, the whole system breaks down. The ramifications can be enormous and terrifying.

 

Crumbling confidence: fraudulent science unravels.

In August of 2010, Annie Dookhan’s fraudulent science began unraveling.  She was caught forging a colleague’s signature and put on suspension. During the next 18 months, the investigation turned up the real reason she was multiplying her colleagues’ output: she had been guessing. She often tested only one in five of the samples assigned to her. She admitted that she had “dry-labbed” samples for years, sorting the specimens by what they were ‘suspected’ to be, and testing an example or two from each batch. In some instances, when a sample was returned to her after a re-test indicated it was incorrect, she would contaminate it to “make it what I said it was”.  It was a simple ‘fudging’ of the results. Surely these were educated guesses, and the approximations close enough for government work?

The problem, however, is that the wheels of justice come off and trust, impartiality and fair-mindedness completely derails on conjecture.  Convictions require uncorrupted facts and unconditional proof: verified, acknowledged, approved and certified.  Sadly, Annie Dookhan’s work output was far from that.

 

A lesson learned: slow down to get it right.

While Dookhan’s work was unique in how rapidly it was turned around for the courts, the evidence against her was painstakingly built. Eventually, faced with overwhelming substantiation of wrong-doing, she was interviewed at her home and admitted to faking results, skipping proper procedures, lying under oath, faking her credentials and contaminating samples. With her admissions, the lab was closed in August of 2012. Not only were her results called into question, but since she seldom calibrated machinery used by other chemists on their cases, their results also became suspect. It is estimated that Dookhan’s 40,000 tests during a three year period could be doubtful, but so would a much larger universe of tests by the lab mates.

On November 22, 2013, she was convicted of various counts including obstruction of justice, perjury and evidence tampering, and is serving 3 to 5 years in prison followed by two years’ probation.

The damage extended exponentially outside of the lab. Once the word got out about the lab’s lack of trustworthiness, 1,100 decisions were vacated and more than 300 prisoners were set free. At least one convicted murderer, Donta Hood, is suspected of killing Charles Evans shortly after his release.

 

When trust is broken: the wider impact.

Pristine science, protocol and procedure when investigating, drawing conclusions and preparing evidence is essential. There are always those who feel the need to take shortcuts, but we bring this egregious case forward as a reminder that sometimes taking those risks, especially when so much is at stake, can lead to unintended circumstances.

The fact is — had Annie not taken shortcuts in her lab, had she not told little white lies, and not misrepresented results — criminals would have remained locked up to serve their sentences, a murderer would still be behind bars and Charles Evans would not be dead. Families would not have to relive their nightmares during retrials. Colleagues would not be out of work from a lab closure. Prosecutors would not need to put in thousands of hours of new work, looked over by special counsel, with new costs running into the hundreds of millions of dollars.

 

Your Turn: This case poses an interesting and controversial question — who killed Charles Evans? And does Annie Dookhan bear all the responsibility in this particular case? We’d love to hear your comments. Leave them below.

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