Chemist May Have Tainted 24,000 Court Cases
Four years after her arrest, Massachusetts has only reviewed 1 percent of the convictions based on Annie Dookhan’s tampered lab results.
Four years after chemist Annie Dookhan was arrested for falsifying evidence at Massachusetts’ state drug lab, less than 1 percent of the 24,000 cases she may have tampered with have been reviewed.
Dookhan’s story—of how she tainted drug evidence in criminal investigations on a massive scale—has been well-documented by local media. But lost in the focus on the chemist herself are the more than 20,000 defendants who may have been wrongfully convicted thanks to her mishandled results. It’s one of the largest breaches of justice in Massachusetts has ever seen—so why, four years later, hasn’t it been fixed?
“It’s a huge embarrassment,” says Matthew Segal, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts. “Just a ridiculous comment on the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to solve this crisis. We’re just now getting a list of cases, five years after she was caught.”
Hired as a chemist in 2003, Dookhan—the daughter of immigrants—was known as a star employee at the state drug lab. It was her obsession with maintaining a perfect image, according to The Boston Globe, that drove her to falsify drug evidence for years. Her crimes were not necessarily motivated by malice, but by the desire to be valued for her speed. And for a while, she was very speedy.
Dookhan regularly tested 500 drug samples a month, three times more than her peers, who did between 50 and 150. From 2003-2012 she was responsible for testing more than 60,000 drug samples connected to 34,000 criminal cases.
It wasn’t until 2011 that her perfect image began to crumble. According to court documents, a colleague had caught her forging signatures on more than 95 samples. Her efficiency, experts learned, wasn’t the result of unmatched talent, but the result of deception. She routinely failed to test the drugs, mixed them together, forged signatures, and reported false positives.
“I screwed up big time,” Dookhan reportedly told Massachusetts officials. “I messed up bad. It’s my fault. I don’t want the lab to get in trouble.”
Assistant Attorney General John Verner testified that Dookhan would regularly grab a pile of 15-20 drug samples she was responsible for, test only five of them, then “list them all as positive.” In some cases if a sample would test negative, she would add drugs from another sample and retest it. Beyond tampering with the drug samples, she lied about her own credentials on the stand, claiming she had a masters in biochemistry from the University of Massachusetts on 14 occasions.
In September 2012, Massachusetts state police arrested Dookhan at her home. Three months later the 36-year-old was officially indicted on 17 counts of obstruction of justice, eight counts of tampering with evidence, and one count each of perjury and falsification of academic records. After pleading guilty in Suffolk County Superior Court she was sentenced to three to five years in prison.
The lab was promptly shut down and more than 300 people serving time for cases she’d handled were released. The tens of thousands who were formerly prosecuted would have to wait.
It wasn’t as if the state was blind to the gravity of the problem.
During the sentencing, Attorney General Martha Coakley released a scathing memorandum on Dookhan’s actions. “With no regard for the consequences, the defendant ensured that samples would test positive for controlled substances thus eviscerating both the integrity of the lab’s internal testing processes, and the concomitant fact finding process that was a jury’s to perform.”
Coakley argued that Dookhan should receive a harsher sentence than just a few years in prison. “The total costs to rectify Dookhan’s actions have climbed into the millions with no end in sight,” she said. “The financial aspect does not even address the loss of liberty of affected individuals, the significant deleterious effect on the safety of the public, or the breakdown of public trust in the system.”
Since then, the colossal “loss of liberty” that Coakley recognized remains unchanged.
In 2015, the ACLU began to take legal action against the state, filing a lawsuit on behalf of three people—Kevin Bridgement, Yasir Creach, and Miguel Cuevas—allowing them to challenge their convictions, which were based on Dookhan’s testing. Included in the ruling was a mandate that the prosecutors release a list of the tens of thousands of people who may have been wrongfully convicted because of Dookhan.
In May, the ACLU finally obtained the official number of those potentially affected: 24,000. The statistics were staggering. Dookhan’s cases accounted for an estimated one in four successful drug prosecutions in the seven counties that relied on the Hinton State Lab, and one in six successful drug prosecutions in the Commonwealth from 2003-2012.
With an official list of those whose cases may have been tainted now available, a tug of war over what to do with it is in full swing. Hanging in the balance are defendants who faced jail time, criminal records, and deportation for convictions based on the mishandled evidence.
The Suffolk County District Attorney’s office and the state’s public defense group, the Committee for Public Counsel Services (CPCS), seem to be in a virtual war over what to do about the cases affected by Dookhan’s bad evidence. The DA’s office told The Daily Beast it is prepared to notify each of the 24,000 defendants that they have a right to an attorney and a new trial—but CPCS claims there aren’t enough public defenders in the entire state to relitigate 24,000 cases. Instead, it wants all guilty pleas based on Dookhan’s work to be thrown out altogether.
And so both sides are apparently at a standstill. Jake Wark, a spokesperson for the Suffolk County DA, told The Daily Beast that the argument that CPCS is understaffed is untrue. “Massachusetts pays 2,500 attorneys defendants and 700 prosecutors, there is simply no merit to the argument that they are spread thin,” he says. “They do two-thirds of the legal work with three times the amount of lawyers.”
Wark claims that within a period of a year, the DA office will set up a series of “special court sessions” where anyone with a Dookhan-related drug case can move to withdraw their guilty plea. “There is no waiting list now,” he says. “Anyone who has a case can come.” When asked how people will know that they may have been wrongfully convicted—especially before the DA’s office sends out notifications to all 24,000—Wark points to the media. “This was a crisis in the state’s criminal justice system of unprecedented public publicity,” he says. “It’s been publicized and broadcast for four years.”
Plus, Wark argues, most of the punishments were likely mild. “In Massachusetts you have to work very hard to go to prison. The great majority of the defendants on Dookhan cases weren’t sentenced to jail at all,” he says. “They very certainly were not sent to prison, the overwhelming majority.”
Benjamin Keehn, a public defender for CPCS calls Wark’s depiction of his office “simply untrue.” Whether or not the public defenders have enough staff to handle the typical caseload is one thing, but to take on tens of thousands of new cases? “These people will get a notice saying they have a right to a free lawyers and reach a public defender’s office that doesn’t have any lawyers left to work with,” Keehn tells The Daily Beast.
Keehn says the DA’s office has fought “every step of the way” to keep the cases from getting dismissed. “They’ve refused to agree to anything other than trench warfare, case by case,” he says. “They came up with nifty ideas like [agreeing] to vacate their guilty plea then re-prosecute them and get more time. So the prize for exercising your due process rights is additional punishment?
“We want notices to go out to say your cases are dismissed, maybe with some limited opportunity for the DA to attempt to reprosecute. That’s the only fair solution,” Keehn adds. “Handling 24,000 cases one by one is going to bankrupt everyone and take years—it’s a nonstarter.”
The ACLU agrees. “People are denied due process when they are wrongly convicted or when people frame them,” Segal says. “Now it’s becoming a process of due process delay. It’s unbelievable that it’s taken that long. We are talking about a situation where justice delayed has been justice denied.”
While the majority of those sentenced likely did not face jail time, all have a permanent offense on their record—which can turn basic things like finding a job, applying to school, and securing housing into near impossibilities. “The notion that poor folks who have been victimized by wrongful convictions in the war on drugs don’t need to be told—by the state wrongly convicted them?” Segal says, “That is absurd.”