Science & Technology

Mass. Lab Scandal Leads to Fears of the Guilty Being Freed, Not So Much About the Innocent Being Jailed

They're bad people! Bad!


Annie Dookhan, a former state lab technician in Massachusetts, is facing 27 different criminal charges in connection to a scandal rocking the state's justice system. Her behavior has tainted potentially thousands of drug cases. The charges, announced today, range from tampering with evidence to perjury (she apparently lied about having a master's degree) to obstruction of justice.

I want to start with a paragraph toward the end of today's Boston Globe report in order to highlight what I think is a bit of a disturbing trend in the way the effects of the scandal are being talked about. Here's the explanation of the kinds of misbehavior attributed to Dookhan:

According to [Massachusetts Attorney General Martha] Coakley's statement, Dookhan allegedly "dry labbed" seized drugs, falsely certifying that she performed the required testing of seized suspected contraband when, in fact, she had not tested, but had merely made a visual examination.

Dookhan also allegedly tainted samples by mixing substances she knew were illegal drugs with samples she knew did not contain illegal substances. She also allegedly forged the initials of a supervisor on reports in an attempt to cover up her misdeeds, prosecutors allege.

So she mixed drugs into clean samples. You would think that from reading what Dookhan was accused of doing, the big fear would be the state convicting innocent people on the basis of contaminated tests.

But here's how that very same story begins:

Former state chemist Annie Dookhan, who triggered a crisis in the state's criminal justice system that has set convicted drug dealers free and may cost tens of millions of dollars to fix, is facing a 27-count indictment, Attorney General Martha Coakley's office said today. [Emphasis added.]

The emphasis is on setting drug dealers free. Here's CBS reporting:

No one can explain why she did it, but 160 convicted criminals have already been freed, and local police are worried about a crime wave if hundreds more have to be released.

Coakley, said, "All of our local police chiefs can and should be worried about that, but we're determined to get it right in Massachusetts. We have to make sure the public has a sense the system works."

The argument presented further in the story is that many of these convicts had criminal records already, so they're bad people. This apparently matters more than whether they were in fact guilty of the crimes for which they were convicted. And the Boston Police are apparently preparing for some sort of possible "crime wave" that might happen if about 600 convicted prisoners are released. The City of Boston's population is 625,000, but that number swells to millions if you include the Greater Boston region.

Hilariously, in one of the CBS videos, they point out that eight of the 158 prisoners released by the scandal thus far have been rearrested on new charges. Eight of them. That's five percent.