What to do with 60,000 cases involving Annie Dookhan?

According to The Boston Globe, Scott Burns, the executive director of the National District Attorneys Association, said Dookhan’s alleged actions are not without precedent but far from typical. I agree with him. The scope of this disaster is what makes it so remarkable. However, there is a long, long list of similar shame: Fred Zain, Joyce Gilchrist, Dee Wallace, Garry Veeder, Elizabeth Mansour, Anne Marie Gordon, Charles Smith, James E. Price, and Deborah Madden just to name a few. [Here is a list of others: http://www.corpus-delicti.com/forensic_fraud.html]

Is this case the Canary in the Coal Mine?
Is this Dookhan scandal the Canary in the coal mine?

No criminal justice system can cope with suddenly having 60,000 to 100,000 cases injected into it with no warning. Court budgets are already strained. The pressure to declare this scandal over must be quite overwhelming. In a swift and bold move, Chief Justice Robert A. Mulligan, Chief Justice of the Trial Court for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, has created a special court to handle the aftermath of the Annie Dookhan mess (See more here:  Yet another crime lab scandal — the real question is how many failures until they get caught and when is enough enough? and The poster child for everything that is wrong in forensic science: Annie Dookhan and also The Fukushima of Forensics: Annie Dookhan)

Chief Justice
Chief Justice Robert A. Mulligan

What I fear the most is half-measures and a quick “investigation” as opposed to a true investigation into the scientific Fukushima of Forensics that this Annie Dookhan matter truly is. This is a scientific disaster, not a political one. While there is a political component to it all, this should not be handled politically. We need full transparency. We don’t need a “Here is what is wrong (pointing to one person); we fixed it quick” type of situation. We need to have a whole scale bottom-to-top retooling of that forensic science system. Like mythical Phoenix from the ashes, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts has an opportunity to resurrect its system to be like the beacon on a hill for others to see.

At a minimum, there should be:

  • a wholly independent lab with no police or District Attorney oversight;
  • a meaningful and wholly independent QA program;
  • barcoded sample tracking;
  • videotaping in the laboratory;
  • full vetting of all employees;
  • blinded proficiency testing;
  • independent auditing;
  • random rechecking of actual samples by the independent QA officer;
  • testimony monitoring by the QA officer;
  • full transparency to the criminal defense bar of all information; and
  • publication of validation studies along with all policies, procedures, and instructions on-line so all in the world can see it.

I’m willing to bet that none of the above will happen.

What is needed here is the appointment of true scientists AND MOST IMPORTANTLY lawyer-scientists who understand the law and the science. While lawyer-scientsits are rare, they do exist. What is not needed are lawyers and also scientists. They (scientists and lawyers) infrequently speak the same language.

While I am happy to see the establishing of this special Dookhan court, I am concerned. I am concerned that in exchange for fast, we sacrifice. We sacrifice a proper and full investigation for half measures. I fear that lawyers with non-scientific backgrounds will be trying to judge a science they don’t understand. I fear that scientists with no legal background will be trying to interpret science in the context of a courtroom.

David Meier
David Meier

The court appointed Attorney David Meier to head up the Dookhan special court. While it appears that Attorney Meier has established himself well in the criminal courts by being a long-time prosecutor who focused on homicides and has been in private practice for a little over three years, it appears as if he has no scientific background at all. According to his firm’s website, his education consists of graduating cum laude from Amherst College earning a Bachelors of Arts Degree majoring in History, and graduating from Boston University School of Law where he was conferred his JD. By all accounts he is a man of high ethics. Mr. Meier was recently recognized by Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly as a 2007 “Lawyer of the Year,” an award granted for “integrity, professionalism, and determination.” After he left the District Attorney’s Office a Boston Globe columnist noted that cases handled by Mr. Meier as a homicide prosecutor “exemplify his devotion to truth over expedience.” He has also volunteered on a panel that investigated wrongful conviction exoneration cases.

But does he understand GC-MS? How logical losses work on the spectra? SIM versus TIC? Does he know how colormetric tests work? The false positives of these tests? Does he know about crystallography?

What is needed is needed most is a lawyer who knows science to steer this rudderless ship or at least be substantially involved.

Then becomes the question of what is the scope of the review of the Dookhan court? What can this special court do?

Freeing those in jail. That’s the remarkably easy part.

The larger looming social question becomes:

  • How do you give time back to the people who were jailed?
  • How do you give those who lost their jobs their jobs back?
  • How do you reconnect a mother or father who lost their parental rights because of these tests?
  • How do you “un-homeless” those who were made homeless when they lost their public housing?
  • How do you reunite families who were split up when a parent was deported because of these tests?
  • Do you compensate those convicted? If so, how much?

Instead, sadly I predict that this scandal will result in yet another in the long list of laboratories who were simply declared “fixed” (with no transparency in the data) with those administratively in charge finding a ready singular scape­goat to blame the prob­lems on so the pub­lic will have a false sense of secu­rity and rest assured that the prob­lems were the fault of merely a sin­gle rogue ana­lyst and not a systemic lab­o­ra­tory and cultural failure.

Prove me wrong.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *