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Crime Lab Scandal Leaves Mass. Legal System In Turmoil
by Friday
December 1, 2013 at 1:36 AM


A scandal in a Massachusetts crime lab continues to reverberate throughout the state's legal system. Several months ago, Annie Dookhan, a former chemist in a state crime lab, told police that she messed up big time. Dookhan now stands accused of falsifying test results in as many as 34,000 cases.

As a result, lawyers, prosecutors and judges used to operating in a world of "beyond a reasonable doubt" now have nothing but doubt.

Already, hundreds of convicts and defendants have been released because of the scandal. Now, the state's highest court may weigh in on how these cases should be handled.

"I don't think anyone ever perceived that one person was capable of causing this much chaos," says Norfolk County District Attorney Michael Morrissey, one of many DAs now digging through old drug cases, trying to sort out how many should now be considered tainted.

"You can see the entire walls full of boxes," Morrissey says, gesturing at dusty files piled six feet high in a conference room near his office. "In one of these cardboard boxes, there could be hundreds of cases ... in each box."

The cases represent nearly a decade's worth of work that could take years and tens of millions of dollars to review.

For Prosecutors, 'Unsettling And Maddening'

In Massachusetts, special courts have already heard hundreds of cases of convicts and defendants arguing they were denied due process. Their evidence, they argue, was handled — or mishandled — by Annie Dookhan.

In a recent hearing, public defender Julieann Hernon argued for the release of a man charged with selling cocaine and heroin in a school zone to an undercover officer. Hernon recited a list of alleged misconduct by Dookhan.

"It was, we now know, mis-testing evidence, dry-labbing evidence, saying she had conducted tests when she had not, deliberately tainting drugs," she said.

Hernon's client had pleaded guilty, but now, Hernon said, he should be allowed to take it back.

Norfolk County District Attorney Michael Morrissey is reviewing thousands of files to determine which cases must be thrown out or retried because of potentially tainted evidence.

Norfolk County District Attorney Michael Morrissey is reviewing thousands of files to determine which cases must be thrown out or retried because of potentially tainted evidence.

Tovia Smith/NPR

"Certainly, I think, we have to presume a taint here when Annie Dookhan was the chemist in the case," Hernon told the judge.

The whole dynamic in court has now flipped in Massachusetts. Defendants tend to smile while prosecutors watch their cases crumble. Today, Norfolk County Assistant District Attorney Tom Finigan tells the court that the Commonwealth will not oppose Hernon's motion.

"It's unsettling and maddening, because you're now going to have a lot of people get released to the street prematurely," says Middlesex County District attorney Gerry Leone, one of many hoping the state supreme court will curb the releases.

While some defendants could still be on the hook for gun or assault charges, for example, he says most drug cases where Dookhan was the primary chemist will be impossible to re-prove beyond a reasonable doubt.

But Leone says it's unclear where to draw the line. Some offenders, he says, are just trying to jump on the bandwagon, arguing that every test from that lab should be considered tainted.

"If someone's in jail, they're doing downtime," Leone says. "So there's no reason to try to file something that gets you back before the court."

In another recent case, defense attorney William Sullivan successfully argued to withdraw a client's guilty plea in a case where Dookhan was a secondary chemist.

"This is a lab that was pretty much wholly and fully contaminated by Ms. Annie Dookhan," Sullivan told the judge. "She had full access to everyone's drugs."

While the judge decided in his client's favor, Sullivan is quick to add that clients like his also have plenty of reason to be bitter.

"The tragedy is that he's already did four years on this," Sullivan says. "I mean, that is disturbing in itself."

Other defendants have lost jobs, driver's licenses, kids and marriages, and many have been deported. And in federal court, many defendants received stiffer sentences, because of prior state convictions based on evidence from Annie Dookhan.

Related NPR Stories

With Hundreds Now Free, Police On High Alert

Defense attorneys say it's taking too long to handle these cases individually. They want the state's highest court to order that Dookhan cases should be presumed to be tainted and automatically put on hold.

It may look like defendants are getting a "get out of jail free" card, Sullivan says, but the focus must be on whether they got a fair trial.

"I think we put on blinders when we're doing these cases," Sullivan says. "You try to do the right thing for your client to make sure that they get proper representation. And if that means it gets them off, it gets them off."

With hundreds of former defendants already off and out on city streets, police remain on high alert.

"These people are not first-time offenders or small-time drug dealers," says Boston Police Sgt. James Machado. "I know there will be consequence[s] of this. And unfortunately, innocent people will be killed."

Already, about 20 of those released have been re-arrested for new crimes. Boston police commissioner Edward Davis says Boston hasn't seen the surge in violence that some feared, but he — and his officers — worry it's yet to come.

"They shake their heads. You know, they're disgusted by what's happened," Davis says. "We have to start from zero again."

Davis says he's been sending an officer to meet with each defendant or convict just before release to offer services like job training — and to issue a warning.

"We tell them, 'Listen, we know what you were doing before and we're watching you. And if you go back into the life, that Dookhan's not there anymore. So when you go [back] in on this charge, it's gonna stick,'" Davis says.

Annie Dookhan is currently facing charges of her own: 27 counts of perjury, tampering with evidence and obstructing justice.

At the same time, civil suits are also starting to pile up, as those accused of crimes based on Dookhan's evidence now accuse Dookhan of violating their right to a fair trial.

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Replies

  • Mommabearbergh
    December 1, 2013 at 2:27 AM
    Her catastrophic mistake has affected the Boston community and people who believe in the idealistic law.
  • momtoscott
    December 1, 2013 at 7:18 AM

    I really don't understand why she was hired in the first place, and how she could have kept her job.  I think pretty much everyone associated with that lab needs to be fired.  Thanks to them, there are a bunch of guilty criminals back on the streets, in addition to the innocent people who were wrongly jailed.  

  • andiemomo3
    December 1, 2013 at 9:08 AM

    Damn.

  • Mommabearbergh
    December 1, 2013 at 9:17 AM
    She said she had a degree and they never checked .
    She was working faster then her co workers so they thought she was good at it.
    Obviously no one actually checked to see if she was doing procedures right.

    Because she may have sent some innocent people to prison. They had to let people go but along with the innocent people they had to let some probably guilty people go also. It is all a big clusterfuck to be quite honest. She actually had the balls to ask if her curfew could be later because of some crap reason. I do not like her at all


    Quoting momtoscott:

    I really don't understand why she was hired in the first place, and how she could have kept her job.  I think pretty much everyone associated with that lab needs to be fired.  Thanks to them, there are a bunch of guilty criminals back on the streets, in addition to the innocent people who were wrongly jailed.  

  • momtoscott
    December 1, 2013 at 9:21 AM

    And that's what perplexes me.  How could you hire somebody for a state position--there are supposed to be lots of regulations to follow--and not check their resume or evaluate their work?  

    I live in Mass, too, and am not super happy about the idea of criminals released back onto the streets because this chick screwed up their cases.  I'm with you: I do not like her at all.   

    Quoting Mommabearbergh:

    She said she had a degree and they never checked .
    She was working faster then her co workers so they thought she was good at it.
    Obviously no one actually checked to see if she was doing procedures right.

    Because she may have sent some innocent people to prison. They had to let people go but along with the innocent people they had to let some probably guilty people go also. It is all a big clusterfuck to be quite honest. She actually had the balls to ask if her curfew could be later because of some crap reason. I do not like her at all


    Quoting momtoscott:

    I really don't understand why she was hired in the first place, and how she could have kept her job.  I think pretty much everyone associated with that lab needs to be fired.  Thanks to them, there are a bunch of guilty criminals back on the streets, in addition to the innocent people who were wrongly jailed.  


  • Mommabearbergh
    December 1, 2013 at 9:27 AM
    I always figured with state jobs it's not what you know its who you know and I think she got in without all the right procedures because she knew someone. Look at all the corruption that has happened in mass with people not qualified holding jobs. There was the lady who was the head of safety and had a horrible driving record and the other parole scandal.

    Quoting momtoscott:

    And that's what perplexes me.  How could you hire somebody for a state position--there are supposed to be lots of regulations to follow--and not check their resume or evaluate their work?  

    I live in Mass, too, and am not super happy about the idea of criminals released back onto the streets because this chick screwed up their cases.  I'm with you: I do not like her at all.   

    Quoting Mommabearbergh:

    She said she had a degree and they never checked .

    She was working faster then her co workers so they thought she was good at it.

    Obviously no one actually checked to see if she was doing procedures right.



    Because she may have sent some innocent people to prison. They had to let people go but along with the innocent people they had to let some probably guilty people go also. It is all a big clusterfuck to be quite honest. She actually had the balls to ask if her curfew could be later because of some crap reason. I do not like her at all




    Quoting momtoscott:

    I really don't understand why she was hired in the first place, and how she could have kept her job.  I think pretty much everyone associated with that lab needs to be fired.  Thanks to them, there are a bunch of guilty criminals back on the streets, in addition to the innocent people who were wrongly jailed.  


  • stacymomof2
    December 1, 2013 at 11:19 AM
    Holy crap that is ridiculous. It's her fault that both guilty and not guilty people are being released from prison. Absolutely terrible.
  • jllcali
    by jllcali
    December 1, 2013 at 12:13 PM
    Wow. That's fucked up.
  • MeAndTommyLee
    December 1, 2013 at 2:06 PM

    Every single case she was involved in needs to be dismissed.  Misconduct, reasonable doubt......

    Some guilty parties may go free, but the innocent are far more important to me.  And by the evidence against her, she falsified lab results to convict.  I can't help wondering if the da was partially in on this and merely protecting Thierry ohhice now by solely pointing the finger at her.  I put nothing past prosecutors that are paid to win convictions.  They will make innocent people guilty whatever the cost.

  • Friday
    by Friday
    December 1, 2013 at 2:16 PM


    Quoting Mommabearbergh:

    Her catastrophic mistake has affected the Boston community and people who believe in the idealistic law.

    I can imagine. I hope they nail her to the wall. This whole thing is just insanity.

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