Still, A Question Persists: How Big Is Drug Lab Crisis?
BOSTON — Nine months after Massachusetts authorities closed a state drug lab, officials are still trying to determine just how big the crisis is — and how many criminal cases are potentially compromised.
So far, officials have compiled more than 2 million records related to all drugs tested at the now-closed Hinton state drug lab. Some of the testing was allegedly tainted by former chemist Annie Dookhan.
WBUR has analyzed the data involving Dookhan’s drug tests. Among the trends we’ve identified: Dookhan tested drugs faster than any other chemist at the lab — at a time when testing should have taken longer.
‘The Data Is A Mess’
A Massachusetts State Police database provided to prosecutors and defense attorneys after Dookhan was charged with falsifying drug tests is — at best — rough. It’s a spreadsheet of tens of thousands of drug tests linked to Dookhan.
“The data is a mess, a real mess,” said Tom Workman, a defense attorney and adjunct professor of scientific evidence at the University of Massachusetts School of Law. He’s analyzed the database to see if any of his clients are involved.
“I can’t figure out whether my clients had their samples processed by Annie Dookhan,” Workman said. “The names are not entered accurately. Some say things like ‘CI,’ which stands for confidential informant. Some say ‘fat man.’ Maybe somebody was a fat man but I can’t match that up in my database to one of my clients.”
But Workman has been able to find some trends within this imperfect data that have been verified by other analyses. For example, Workman found that the rate of expediting drug tests to get them done faster was significantly higher in some counties than others. He also points to how quickly Dookhan tested drugs when compared with her co-workers.
Dookhan’s Accelerated Testing And ‘Dry-Labbing’
WBUR independently obtained the same database and did a separate analysis. Our analysis confirms that Dookhan tested faster than any other chemist in the lab, and the pace of her testing accelerated even after what’s known as Melendez-Diaz — the U.S. Supreme Court ruling (PDF) prohibiting prosecutors from using forensic tests unless without the scientist appearing in court to testify about their testing.
“Melendez-Diaz did not slow her down,” Workman said. “She continued to decrease the amount of time — the turnaround time. It went from 10 months to two months in a period of about 18 months. You scratch your head and say, ‘How could someone do that?’ The obvious answer that comes to mind is they weren’t doing the work, they were dry-labbing.”
So-called “dry-labbing” is what State Police say that Dookhan has admitted to doing. What dry-labbing basically means is that the chemist certified that a substance was an illegal drug after just looking at it — no testing involved. Various investigations are under way to determine how many cases were affected during Dookhan’s nine years at the lab and why it took so long before someone noticed.
“How did it go on for years? Poor management,” said Michael O’Keefe, the Cape and Islands district attorney and president of the Massachusetts District Attorneys Association. He says for years prosecutors pushed for drug testing to be moved out of the Department of Public Health-operated Hinton lab, which is one of the estimated 20 percent of non-accredited drug labs in the nation.
Instead, O’Keefe says, prosecutors wanted the testing done at the accredited State Police lab. “When State Police went in and looked at the output of this chemist, that triggered a thorough investigation,” he said. “That’s distinguished from the one a year earlier when we were told from DPH that it was a little problem with a few cases from Norfolk County and ‘We’ve got it under control’ — baloney.”
O’Keefe is referring to a DPH letter from February 2012 that gave the first hint of a problem at the lab. The letter said that the department investigated a “breach of protocol” involving 90 drug samples from Norfolk County in which the Hinton chemist did not properly sign out evidence. DPH said the problem was taken care of and the chemist stayed on the job but had stopped doing drug analysis.
Norfolk County District Attorney Michael Morrissey says he told all district attorneys that Dookhan should not be called as an expert witness.
“We had made a clear decision that we’d never put Annie Dookhan on the stand ever again after that,” Morrissey said, “that I would not subject her and would not put her on the stand because I thought she was unreliable and her credibility would obviously be zero.”
Emails And Allegations Of Bias
But one of Morrissey’s prosecutors resigned after his emails to Dookhan became public. Former Norfolk County Assistant District Attorney George Papachristos was questioned by State Police about the emails, in which he often mentioned specific defendants and asked Dookhan to do the testing.
Morrissey says Papachristos did nothing wrong. He says prosecutors often have to communicate with chemists, mainly to arrange their courtroom testimony.
“There’s no evidence that anybody wrote anything that would have shaped or changed or affected the outcome of any case,” Morrissey said. “Whether they’re too informal or too friendly, that obviously is less than professional. So Mr. Papachristos decided the best thing to do was to leave so the focus stays on Annie Dookhan.”
After the fallout, Morrissey said, “We have had additional training on the use of email to remind people that this is a business. So act accordingly.”
Hundreds of Dookhan’s emails are part of the potential evidence in the criminal case against her. WBUR has obtained much of that evidence, which includes grand jury and State Police interviews of many of those involved — including Dookhan. The emails raise several questions. In one Dookhan told a prosecutor she wanted to get drug defendants “off the streets.” In another email, a prosecutor explained to Dookhan what weight of a drug is required for the more serious charge of trafficking.
Defense attorneys and their clients point to these emails as proof of alleged bias.
“The idea is that you should be blind testing,” said Anne Goldbach, director of forensic services for the Committee for Public Counsel Services, the state public defender agency. She says a chemist or anyone doing forensic testing should not know a defendant’s name or other specifics about a case.
“You can tell that Annie Dookhan felt a sense of allegiance to the prosecution. That is unconscionable,” Goldbach said.
National forensic experts say the same. Joe Bono, a forensic consultant and former president of the American Association of Forensic Sciences, says any state’s criminal justice system must make it clear that scientific testing of evidence is unbiased.
“The job of a forensic scientist is not to put anybody in jail,” Bono said. “It’s not to provide biased information that can be used by one side or the other. It’s simply to report the information that’s found in the laboratory. When a scientist is communicating with an attorney on either side in such a way that that person’s ability to be objective is questioned, there’s a problem.”
Ousted Officials, And Affected Defendants
Some district attorneys say they’re preparing in case investigators say everything from the now-closed lab — not just Dookhan cases — is tainted and some 190,000 criminal cases could be compromised.
For its part, the Department of Public Health has said there were serious lapses in oversight at the lab and several employees, including the former commissioner, have lost their jobs because of it.
Mass. Drug Lab Crisis
- 12/17/12: Ex-Chemist Dookhan Is Indicted
- 1/25/13: DAs Struggle To Deal With Cases
- 1/31/13: Lawyers Say Crisis Could Widen
- 2/8/13: DA Leone: Wider Range Of Cases May Be Dismissed
- 2/21/13: Mass. High Court Expected To Hear Drug Lab Appeal Case In April
- 4/2/13: Photos Reveal Sloppy Conditions At Lab
- 11/1/12: Editorial: What Did Prosecutors Know?
- 2/6/13: Editorial: The Massive Failures Of Many Collided In A Perfect Storm
- Timeline: Drug Lab Crisis
- Graphic: Annie Dookhan’s Drug Findings
Complete Coverage: State Drug Lab Crisis
The legal community continues to try to balance public safety and the rights of those most directly affected by the problems at the lab — those accused of drug crimes. A Brockton man released from prison early because Dookhan tested the drugs in his case is now charged with murder. Donta Hood was released in the fall of 2012 after serving three years of a five-year sentence for cocaine distribution charges. He is among as many as 286 defendants released because the evidence used against him is now in question.
In Suffolk Superior Court during a recent special drug lab session, we met a 42-year-old man (who didn’t want his name used in case his charges are eventually dropped). He was asking the court to modify his probation curfew or GPS monitoring bracelet so he can get a job.
“It’s been next to impossible to get the curfew extended or the bracelet removed or stuff like that,” the man said.
He was released in December 2012, after five-and-a-half years in jail. He was convicted on charges of having an unlicensed gun and trafficking in cocaine — cocaine tested by Dookhan. He says that testing is now questionable.
“We’re seeing that she was emailing and calling police officers and DAs and whoever else she was talking to,” he said. “The state has an obligation to do the right thing and they’re not doing the right thing. These are the people we look up to. If they’re doing similar things to what people on the streets are doing, that’s just total chaos.”
Both defense attorneys and prosecutors have asked the state Supreme Judicial Court to intervene. Defense attorneys are seeking the dismissal of thousands of cases if they’re connected to Dookhan or the lab. Prosecutors want to limit the authority of the special courts set up to review drug lab cases. The SJC has said that a Superior Court judge has the authority to put sentences in so-called ”Dookhan cases” on hold. But the high court said the special magistrates appointed to review the cases do not.
WBUR has repeatedly reached out to David Meier, the former Suffolk County prosecutor appointed by Gov. Deval Patrick to oversee the review of the criminal cases potentially compromised by the drug lab problems. Meier has not responded to our requests for comment.
It will likely be months before the state gets a clearer picture of the extent of the problems at the lab. The state inspector general, who is investigating all of the lab’s operations, is not expected to complete his review until September.