Poor oversight at crime labs reflects our contempt for justice

Have you heard the story of Annie Dookhan? She used to be a state chemist in Massachusetts, responsible for testing over 40,000 samples over the course of her career. Her coworkers noted that it was physically impossible for her to test so many samples, that she misrepresented herself on the witness stand, that she falsified results, that she didn’t follow protocols when it came to chain of evidence. And yet, it took years for her supervisors to take action, eventually suspending her before she was put on trial — and after a guilty verdict, she got three years in prison and two years probation.

Contrast that with the number of lives she ruined by interfering with evidence in the crime lab. Now, Massachusetts is facing a flood of cases surrounding false convictions, questionable evidence, and more. The ACLU moved for a dismissal of all cases involving evidence she’d handled, a push the organisation lost, but the state’s supreme court has agreed that people can request appeals and retrials without running the risk of more charges and tougher sentences, a fairly minimal concession.

Dookhan put thousands of people in prison over her time in the crime lab. It’s unclear how many committed the crimes they were accused of, and how much her evidence influenced outcomes in these cases. As an expert witness, she would have added weight to her results, and juries would have paid attention to her, thanks to being trained to believe in authorities on the witness stand. It’s going to take decades for all of these cases to wind their way through the justice system, and even then, it’s likely that false convictions will linger.

This has real consequences. Not just in the sense that there are people in prison who shouldn’t be (no one belongs in prison, in the larger picture), but also in the fact that felons and former convicts face incredible discrimination when they get out of prison. It’s difficult to find work, and in some cases they can be specifically barred from employment and may face limitations on where they live and socialise. Convicts also face social discrimination that persists long after they’ve finished probation. They struggle to adjust to the outside world, particularly in the case of those who served long sentences while tech and society raced ahead, and there’s no app for that, nothing to magically catch people up on even a few years of cultural advances.

What’s troubling about Dookhan’s case isn’t just that she tampered with evidence for years. It’s not just that her interference created scores of false convictions. It’s that she’s not the only lab tech who’s been accused of sloppy — and sometimes deliberately malicious — handling of evidence. That raises concerns about the integrity of crime labs across the country, because the fact that we’re catching some likely means that we’re not catching all. Thus, we cannot confidently assume the integrity and fidelity of sample testing or expert testimony on the witness stand, and many juries may not understand this, or may not act with generalised suspicion when looking at the pieces of a story.

We consider criminal evidence to be highly authoritative and reliable, thanks in no small part to CSI. We view crime labs as sacred places where the sole focus is on processing evidence and gleaning answers, discovering what happened through a chain of evidence collected at a scene, whether it’s blood tests or soil samples or hair or fibers. Labs are considered authorities that can’t waver. The notion of falsified or compromised evidence as a one-time, unusual thing, however, isn’t an accurate reflection of crime labs.

Because, evidently, crime labs face minimal oversight in the United States, as illustrated by Dookhan’s case. Her coworkers knew that there were problems, and some of her supervisors likely did as well. Yet, no one acted, not even to file an anonymous report about potential problems with the way she was dealing with evidence. No one decisively stepped forward to ask that she be suspended while evidence was reevaluated and her job performance was reviewed. It took a crucible moment to push the situation over the edge, compelling the lab to actually do something.

In theory, crime labs should indeed be places where processing evidence is the primary focus and nothing is allowed to interfere with that duty. However, that’s obviously not the case, which raises some important questions about how we can improve oversight to prevent cases like Dookhan’s. The problem, however, is that no one cares. Problems at crime labs only affect prisoners, and moreover, there are serious race and class imbalances within the US prison system; thus, no one wants to advocate for substantial overhauls to the investigative system used to put people in prison, thanks to the devaluation of these lives.

Prisoners don’t matter, and thus it doesn’t matter if ‘a few’ are there thanks to false evidence and inaccurate representations on the witness stand. This is just one aspect of a ‘justice system’ that’s actually deeply contemptuous of the people who get caught up in it, a system that privileges certain people over others, a system that tends to believe that people are guilty until proved innocent. As cases in connection with Dookhan mushroom across Massachusetts, we need to talk about how the falsification and mishandling of evidence in crime labs is a serious problem that we need to address in the name of civil rights, justice, and prison reform.

For those who don’t think these are convincing arguments, there’s always this: The state’s failure to act on Dookhan’s activities is likely to cost billions of dollars over time, and that’s money that could have been applied to much better things. Inefficiency is a core component of the ‘justice’ system, and it shouldn’t be.

Image: Laboratories, St. Louis University Madrid, Flickr