Texas, Colo. Coping With Their Own Lab Testing Crises
BOSTON — With as many as 34,000 criminal cases compromised, Massachusetts may be dealing with the largest-ever drug lab crisis in the U.S. But the state is not alone. Both Colorado and Texas are grappling with their own testing problems.
“There’s no question in my mind that the drug testing problem in Massachusetts is far and away the most serious problem that we have ever become aware of in this country,” said Lawrence Kobilinsky, professor of forensic science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.
The problem began last summer when the state closed the Hinton drug lab run by the state Department of Public Health. Shortly afterward, former Hinton chemist Annie Dookhan was charged with falsifying drug tests. That prompted the state health commissioner to resign, saying he was responsible for the actions of what he called a “rogue” chemist. But defense lawyers who have lived through other lab crises say that’s a typical story line.
“It’s not one supervisor who is a bad egg, or one lab tech who is a bad egg,” said Jay Tiftickjian, with the Colorado Criminal Defense Bar. Earlier this month, the supervisor of Colorado’s crime lab retired after officials released a report detailing problems in that lab. The report said that lab employees were not properly trained, blood-alcohol samples were vulnerable to tampering and a lab supervisor pressured analysts to provide expert testimony when they weren’t qualified to do so. Tiftickjian doesn’t buy it when Colorado officials defend the lab and say the problems were isolated to one supervisor.
“The government is now portraying her as the lone wolf, trying to spin it as if she was the problem and she’s gone and now everything is fine. It’s been happening all across the country, that these forensic labs that we’re using to rely on things that put people in jail are not properly set up, supervised, maintained and accredited,” Tiftickjian said.
There are about 400 accredited forensic labs in the country. The troubled labs in Colorado and Massachusetts are among the estimated 80 labs in the U.S. that are not accredited. Critics say states with unaccredited labs are more susceptible to problems because the accreditation process requires more regulation — such as audits of lab testing procedures, specified training and performance reviews of lab analysts.
Despite more oversight, a Texas state crime lab analyst working at an accredited lab is accused of mishandling about 4,000 drug tests there. A grand jury declined to pursue charges. Walker County Criminal District Attorney David Weeks says the bigger issue is resources and making sure the labs get what they need as courts increasingly rely on forensic testing.
“Everybody’s, you know, used to the idea that we’re going to have testing and it’s very important — the CSI factor,” he said. “Well, what do we do when we can’t trust those results?”
Texas requires its labs to be accredited and after news of problems at the lab got out, lawmakers there created more state oversight and budgeted more money for it. While Massachusetts lawmakers are considering a bill that would require accreditation and more oversight, there has been little action in the year since the drug lab crisis came to light. Massachusetts State Police have taken over most of the testing since then, but there are questions about accreditation.
Most labs in Massachusetts are accredited under an old system that is being phased out. Also, most of the labs have been granted extensions to get new accreditation, according to forensic consultant Joseph Bono, former president of the American Society of Forensic Scientists. He questions why only one of the 11 Massachusetts forensic labs is accredited under the new system and why the other labs have asked for extensions to their accreditation.
“Most labs don’t opt for an extension,” Bono said. “They plan their program so that by the time the certificate expires they are at least in the process of re-accreditation.”
A state police spokesman did not respond to requests for comment on the accreditation. The extension for the state’s primary drug lab expires in September.
As for dealing with potentially compromised criminal cases, the high court in Texas has ruled that all 700 convictions based on the questionable testing there should be dismissed. In Colorado, attorneys estimate that at least 1,000 cases in the state are affected. In Massachusetts, courts have released 325 people who were imprisoned based on evidence tested by Dookhan. Michael O’Keefe, president of the Massachusetts District Attorneys Association, says that shows that prosecutors are committed to justice.
“It’s been a difficult process. We have systems within our system of justice to address these things and they are working,” O’Keefe said. “The most important thing is that people have faith in our system. That’s why we have had the extraordinary action we’ve taken: releasing people who have been convicted.”
Massachusetts public safety officials are reviewing whether more people will be released and whether all testing done at the lab where Dookhan worked is suspect. If that ends up being the case, the nation’s largest drug lab crisis could get a whole lot bigger.