Another week another forensic laboratory scandal. It’s the Wild Wild West

With no standardization of methods, a whole scale lack of basic validity, and a lack of meaningful oversight, today’s forensic laboratory system is beyond “badly fragmented.” It is utterly lawless. It is like the Wild Wild West.

Like I have written before (Why Don’t we Six Sigma Forensic Science? It’s all about method validation, traceability, and quality assurance), that familiar song of cover-up has come about again…

Like the tip of an ice­berg, when these scan­dals are dis­cov­ered, it is quite sim­ply the equiv­a­lent of the Fukushima-like dis­as­ter. There is a cas­cad­ing effect of fail­ure. There is a global fail­ure of qual­ity assur­ance or trace­abil­ity or in under­ly­ing val­i­da­tion. The entire point of hav­ing a dou­ble check (what is called either tech­ni­cal review or a qual­ity assur­ance review) with every result is to have some­one greater qual­i­fied than the bench ana­lyst dis­be­lieve the data pro­duced and seek to fal­sify its valid­ity and only approve it if there is no ques­tion of the data. When there is a notice­able fail­ure that reaches the head­lines, there was undoubt­edly a mas­sive fail­ure of the qual­ity assur­ance (QA) pro­gram that may or may not have been in place. Was the QA offi­cer not trained well in the tech­nique? Was there too much through­put that the QA degen­er­ated to noth­ing but a rub­ber stamp? Was the QA offi­cer incom­pe­tent or fraudulent?

As is often the case in these cases where aber­rant invalid results are pro­duced, the knee-jerk reac­tion of those that are in polit­i­cal con­trol of a test­ing lab­o­ra­tory is to seek to blame one ana­lyst and claim that the sole ana­lyst alone is the source of all that is wrong. In the process, this ana­lyst is clas­si­fied as either a rogue lone wolf or an incom­pe­tent oaf. A press con­fer­ence is held with no mean­ing­ful infor­ma­tion told to the pub­lic as to the sci­en­tific source of the error with non-scientists assur­ing the pub­lic that the issue has been iden­ti­fied, quar­an­tined, and cor­rected with no dam­age. This oddly pre­dictable pat­tern is repeated in all of the major national scan­dals: Hous­ton Police Depart­ment, Wash­ing­ton DC, Col­orado Springs, Philadel­phia, San Fran­cisco, Michi­gan and on and on.

Now we can introduce Jamica Plains, MA to that list of global failures.

Chemist at state drug lab probed; authorities fear people have gone to prison on flawed evidence

By Milton J. Valencia, Mike Bello and Martin Finucane, Globe Staff

A chemist at a state drug laboratory in Jamaica Plain breached procedures in the handling of evidence in drug cases, raising the specter that people have been wrongly convicted on tainted evidence, the head of the State Police said today.

The chemist, a woman who worked at the lab from 2003 until earlier this year, was involved in testing drugs for thousands of cases, said Colonel Timothy Alben.

District attorneys across a wide swath of Massachusetts will now have to review their cases to see if the chemist was involved, officials said.

“I think we’re all furious about this,” said Alben. “Our concern is about any miscarriage of justice that’s out there.”

The State Police were directed by the governor to close the laboratory down as the investigation continues, he said.

Authorities are trying to determine exactly what happened, how it happened, and the exact number of drug samples and cases affected. The State Police are also working with the attorney general’s office to determine whether there was “potential wrongdoing,” Alben said.

Alben did not release the woman’s name, but two other officials familiar with the investigation identified her as Annie Dookhan of Franklin. She could not be reached for comment this afternoon.

An investigation by the Department of Public Health noticed discrepancies in June 2011, and the woman was removed from testing duties at that time before eventually resigning in March of this year, the Department of Public Health said. The State Police took over the lab this summer as directed under the state’s fiscal 2013 budget.

In the past five days, Alben said, officials had an unpleasant surprise, uncovering information that led them to believe there were more “improprieties” than initially thought.

The problems, investigators believe, were “isolated to one particular individual,” Alben said. “This is all focused on one particular former employee of the Department of Public Health.”

The state’s 11 district attorneys issued a statement, saying they had requested a list of cases that were identified by the State Police as questionable.

“We, as District Attorneys, will take the appropriate action necessary to ensure that justice is done. We have notified our counterparts in the Public Defender community to let them know that they will be provided the list of cases as soon as we obtain it,” the statement said.

The Jamaica Plain lab did work on drug evidence in cases in Suffolk, Bristol, Norfolk, the Cape and islands, and, in some cases, Middlesex and Essex counties, said Anthony Benedetti, chief counsel for the Committee for Public Counsel Services. Thousands of cases may be affected, he said.

Benedetti said that public defenders likely represented many of the defendants in the potentially flawed cases. He said the chemist could have compromised the evidence in thousands of cases.

He said the district attorneys he has spoken with have promised to move swiftly if they believe that a person was wrong convicted or improperly sentenced.

They told him, he said, that “in situations where it is believed that there is any chance of an improper conviction … they will do everything in their power, and as swiftly as they can, to correct it.”

“They fear that people have gone to prison on flawed evidence,” he said.

The officials at today’s news conference gave few concrete details on exactly what the chemist was believed to have done.

Guy Vallaro, director of the State Police crime lab, said there are procedures and policies followed in every lab and “some of them weren’t followed appropriately.”

Vallaro did give a general description of the process, saying drugs are brought to the lab, kept in a vault, and signed over to the chemists who analyze them. The chemists both determine the type of drug and, depending on the case, weigh the drugs.

Asked what the chemist’s motivation was believed to be, Alben said that would require more in-depth investigation.

Drug samples that would have been headed to the Jamaica Plain lab are now being routed to the State Police lab in Sudbury.

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