Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Scientific fraud in Massachusetts affects over 40,000 defendants

If ever more evidence was needed that scientific evidence in criminal cases needs to be scrutinized more than it is, we have the story of Annie Dookhan, a chemist with the state of Massachusetts who is heading off to prison for at least three years.

Ms. Dookhan was a real go-getter, running tests at three times the rate of her colleagues. The only problem is she wasn't running the tests. She tampered with evidence, forged signatures and lied about her qualifications as an expert. All in all, at least 40,000 cases have her fingerprints on them.

Auditors found that she was analyzing samples at a rate vastly superior to her fellow analysts but that didn't raise any red flags. Even after she was suspended after admitting she forged another analyst's initials on paper work she continued to testify in court. Finally, over a year after she was caught falsifying documents, she confessed to investigators that she "screwed up big time."

Prosecutors were asking for a sentence of between five and seven years but the judge handling the case, Carol S. Ball, thought a sentence of three to five years was more appropriate because Ms. Dookhan was, according to the judge, "a tragic and broken person undone by her own ambition."

That may be well and good but it doesn't even begin to address the people whose lives were turned upside down by Ms. Dookhan's actions. While the New York Times article takes the obligatory paragraphs to list how bad some of the defendants were, there is precious little space spent on the other victims of her crimes.

But the bigger question is whether or not we've learned our lesson on scientific evidence. It is ironic that in the civil courts, where money is the only issue, that scientific evidence is treated much more seriously than it is in the criminal courts. While civil trials often come down to a battle of the experts on the interpretation of medical or scientific evidence, in the criminal courthouse the judge usually waves off any challenge to the evidence claiming any questions go to the weight, not the admissibility, of the evidence.

So, instead of holding the state to its burden to prove that evidence was obtained and tested according to scientific protocols, the courts punt and let the jury make the decision. Judges would rather risk a few innocent folks getting convicted than do their jobs as gatekeepers of scientific evidence. It's more about judicial economy and not raising red flags that could affect other cases than it is about ensuring that the due process rights of criminal defendants are protected.

The problem is exacerbated by the fact that most judges come to the bench straight from the prosecutors' office.

It is time that scientific evidence in criminal trials was treated with the same degree of seriousness as it is in civil court. If this means the courts should provide more funding so that criminal defendants can afford to have evidence re-tested or to retain outside experts, then so be it. We should all be much more concerned with protecting the rights of a criminal defendant than in protecting the bottom line of an insurance company.

If we can't trust the outside auditors, if we can't trust the internal reviews, if we can't trust the analysts, then who can we trust when it comes to scientific evidence in the criminal courthouse?

1 comment:

Thomas Houston said...

When everyone else was up in arms over the HPD crime lab scandal, I routinely pointed out that it was in great shape compared to other labs, even those run by the feds. Upon testing hundreds of cases a second time, virtually all of HPD's results came back the same, the number where something went wrong amounting to less than a handful. Those fixated on the particular lab said that even one mistake is too many, to which I pointed out the reality of human error in all things we touch, none of the "police are purposely tainting evidence to convict" proving to be true.

Since that time, how many labs have been proven to be worlds worse than Houston's? Not just in the state of Texas but across the country. A big reason for this is money, testing costs money and there is never enough of it to go around. The idea of truly independent labs seems great too until you realize that they come with a price tag amounting to several times more than people eventually want to pay, subject to the first cuts when times get tough.

As such, I'm with Paul in saying that placing too much faith in science is dangerous. This doesn't mean to discard it altogether but a healthy dose of skepticism is certainly welcome in matters pertaining to the system.