A Massachusetts drug-test-lab worker has been charged with faking documents in tests that can mean the difference between freedom and imprisonment for defendants. The woman, who worked as a chemist for a State of Massechusetts drug-test lab, was arrested last week on allegations that she lied in court about drug test results.
Annie Dookhans, 34, was charged with obstruction of justice and falsely pretending to hold a college or university degree, the Associated Press reported. Investigators say the lab technician in some cases simply made up test
results. In other cases the accused 34-year-old lab worker deliberately tainted samples with cocaine to obtain positive test results,prosecutors alleged. An investigation into her handling of thousands of samples in criminal cases has also resulted in closure of the Hinton State Laboratory, resignation of the state health commission and the release of a dozen defendants in drug cases.
The number of cases clouded by the lab-workers arrest is expected to grow. More than 1,100 inmates in Massachusetts jails and prisons were convicted in cases where Dookhan was the primary or secondary chemist. Police said Dookhan tested in excess of 60,000 drug samples drawn from 34,000 defendants during nine years the worked at the lab.
Dookhans motive authorities have alleged so far for Dookhan’s reportedly systematic fraud was that she wanted to be seen as a good worker. Purely by the numbers, she produced as much as 10 times more than her coworkers, turning out 500 tests monthly, compared to the 50 to 150 samples her coworkers tested each month.
The charges allege that Dookhan lied during a 2010 trial when she falsely claimed to hold a masters degree in chemistry from the University of Massachusetts. The charges accuse Dookhan of lying about drug samples she tested in 2011 for a Suffolk County case. Investigators who tested a sample before and after Dookhan tested it found no evidence of cocaine. When Dookhan tested the same sample, she reported it positive for cocaine.
Police allege Dookhan admitted during an interview with investigators in August that she had faked test results for two or three years. Police say she admitted arbitrarily identifying some samples as narcotics based on visual inspection, forged coworkers initials and in some instances deliberately tainted samples to make them test positive for narcotics.
Lab officials have faced criticism for not acting more swiftly after suspicions arose about the merit’s of Dookhans test results. Huffington Post reports lab officials audited her paperwork after suspicions surfaced in 2010, but they did not retest samples she’d tested. Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick ordered the lab closed in August, two days after state police interviewed Dookhan at her home. Though Dookan’s husband said she maintains her innocence, during that interview she admitted tampering with samples.
“I intentionally turned a negative sample into a positive a few times,” Dookhan reportedly said in a signed statement provided to police, according to the Huffington Post.
Dookhan, who could face more than 20 years in prison on the charges, has pleaded not guilty. So far, no one else has been charged. Dookhan reportedly said she tampered with samples and cut corners on her own initiative, with nobody telling her to violate lab procedures.
Bad Actors or Broken System?
Dookhans’ case is another in a long list of irregularities that raise questions about the reliability of laboratories that provide evidence in drug cases.
A New York lab worker’s 100 mistakes in 50 cases last year raised questions about the veracity of her work. Drugs went missing, drug weights were wrong, and samples were misidentified. The worker was reassigned to a non-lab job, but was not charged with a crime in connection with irregularities at the lab.
The Innocence Project has cited numerous examples where laboratory fraud resulted in wrongful conviction and lengthy prison terms for otherwise innocent defendants. A Chicago lab technician in 2001 testified for the prosecution in the trials of at least eight defendants who were convicted, then proven innocent years later by DNA testing.
A former West Virginia state crime lab director testified for the prosecution in 12 states, but DNA and other new evidence showed that he made up lab results, lied on the stand about it and intentionally left out evidence when he prepared his reports.
A 29-year San Francisco crime lab technician was on trial this week for federal charges she took home cocaine from the lab where she worked. The lab worker reportedly told police she started taking cocaine in an effort to battle the effects of her alcoholism.
A 2007 audit of Houston Police Department’s crime lab turned up 600 cases where the role of forensic evidence was questionable. A mid-1990s scandal at the FBI’s forensic labs led to reforms that cast new doubts on as many as 3,000 convictions. In 2004, an FBI lab analyst pleaded guilty to misdemenaor charges for making false statements in about 100 DNA analysis reporrts.
Widespread reports about laboratory fraud cite problems beyond drug cases and court proceedings. Callow Laboratories in Massechusets earlier this year was fined $20 million to settle state Medicaid fraud charges that included allegations of excessive urine testing ordered for indigent drug addicts. In February 2012, three Michigan labs – Accela Medical LLC, Coventry Diagnostics LLC and Western Slope Laboratory LLC – were fined $6 million for falsely billing Medicaire when physicians referred patients to the lab for evaluation of opiate levels. On February 18, 2010, Michael R. Bennett and his company, Workplace Compliance, Inc. (WCI), both pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court, Winston-Salem, North Carolina, to three counts of wire fraud for fraudulently performing final reviews on drug test results from laboratories used by motor carriers and air carriers.
Calls for Reform
The Chicago Sun Times in a 2004 editorial joined others who call for reform in the crime lab system, including separation between labs and the agencies who submit evidence for review. The risk of deceptive forensic practices is heightened by the strong institutional kinship between the technicians who analyze forensic evidence and the law enforcement agencies that investigate and prosecute criminals. Virtually all crime laboratories have direct affiliations with law enforcement agencies.
In 2009, the National Academy of Sciences called for overhaul of a “badly fragmented” forensic science system, including mandatory certification and accreditation requirements, and a review of scientific assumptions that support forensic testimony.
The Washington Post earlier this year published a series of stories exposing instances in which prosecutors failed to reveal to opposing counsel evidence of misconduct related to forensic testing. The Post concluded the series by calling for review of the nations crime labs. The editorial said discussion should not focus on whether further review of crime labs is warranted, but rather on the scope of review that is necessary. The Post urged officials to include members of the defense bar in a review process.