Prosecutors often rely on crime lab results to prosecute cases. That's why the scandal in Massachusetts over a rogue crime lab technician is serious news.
Chemist Annie Dookhan admitted to mishandling evidence including faking results, forging signatures, and skipping necessary paperwork on thousands of drug-related cases. She had worked at the now-closed William A. Hinton State Laboratory Institute from 2003 until her resignation in March. The lab was shut down in August after it became clear how many cases were mishandled, reports The Republican.
But this isn't just a professional embarrassment. It's a criminal justice nightmare as well.
Dookhan first drew attention years ago when she was able to go through three times as many samples as her coworkers. Some of her colleagues were suspicious but nothing was done.
Now officials believe that her mishandling affects as many as 40,000 cases involving drugs, reports NPR.
Criminal drug charges often rely on the results of private or state-run crime labs for evidence at trial. These labs have fairly strict rules on procedure to preserve the chain of evidence. As part of testimony, the custodian of records has to testify under oath about the authenticity of the test results.
State police first realized something was wrong in 2011 when lab employees refused to testify about the results of drug tests Dookhan performed.
In those cases, prosecutors likely ended up without necessary evidence or had to retest the samples. But the effect of Dookhan's actions goes much further.
In cases where defendants were convicted using her drug test results, those people may get their convictions reversed. Already at least one person has had their conviction reversed because of concerns about the evidence used, reports NPR.
That could turn into many more people being released if their convictions rely significantly on improper drug test results. Those defendants will likely have their cases retried without the faulty evidence.
For anyone convicted of drug charges in Massachusetts in the last 10 years, now is the time to consider an appeal. Make sure to talk to your attorney about whether this affects your case.
Perhaps even more problematic is that it's possible some guilty defendants were acquitted based on faulty evidence.
For suspects who were found not guilty because of Dookhan's poorly done tests, there will be no retrial. The constitutional ban on double jeopardy prohibits defendants from being tried for the same crime twice. The fact that they were acquitted based on faulty evidence doesn't matter.
Once acquitted the defendant cannot be issued a new trial for the same crime, even if new evidence comes up.
Dookhan herself may face criminal charges although none have been filed yet. But for tampering with criminal evidence she could find herself in more trouble down the line.