Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Dry labbing it, baby




When you see or hear those words you think of folks with advanced degrees wearing smocks and goggles huddled over test tubes or microscopes looking for the next big breakthrough.

We are taught that science is value-free. In other words, science is about what can be tested and proved or disproved through the scientific method. You make an observation. You think up a hypothesis, or theory to explain what you saw. You design tests to disprove your hypothesis. If the hypothesis cannot be disproved, then a new scientific theory emerges.

Science doesn't care about your political views. It doesn't care about your religious beliefs. it doesn't care about your agenda. It doesn't care who funds the lab. It doesn't care where you come from, where you live or where you went to school. It doesn't care about the consequences (be they good or bad) of your experiments.

Science only cares about that which can be observed and tested. The answer is what the answer is - regardless of what you were hoping it would be.

At least that's what we're taught to believe.

Annie Dookhan thought differently. She wanted to get ahead. So she worked hard. She performed more tests than any other analysts at the Hinton State Laboratory in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts. Over the course of nine years she performed some 60,000 tests in 34,000 cases.

But that's not the whole story. You see, Ms. Dookhan was creative in her methods. She dry-labbed samples (eyeballing them instead of testing them with a color-changing chemical). She forged her colleagues initials on lab reports. She calibrated machines used by other analysts. She removed evidence from the lab. And she intentionally contaminated evidence to confirm her fraud.

It is unknown just how many people are in prison or on supervision because of her actions. It is also unknown how many defense attorneys advised their clients to plead guilty in the face of lab reports instead of fighting their cases.

Ms. Dookhan worked for a state lab that did work for law enforcement agencies until she resigned back in March. She worked for a lab that believed its job was to support law enforcement in prosecuting suspected wrong-doers. She worked in a lab that was accredited by the American Society of Crime Lab Directors/Laboratory Accreditation Board. She worked in a lab in which no one questioned how she was conducting an average of 18 tests a day, 365 days a year.

No one questioned her because this was "science." No one questioned her because no one wanted to believe that someone in the crime lab would fake it like there was no tomorrow. No one questioned her because too many defense attorneys are either scared to challenge scientific evidence or have no clue how to do it. No one questioned her because the judges who presided over the courts just blindly accepted the word of the government "scientist."

For all of this, Ms. Dookhan was charged with two counts of obstruction of justice and one count of pretending to hold a degree. Yep, that's it. Thousands of people whose convictions are now under a cloud of suspicion and she's looking at a couple of misdemeanor charges. The state couldn't even bring itself to charge her with perjury for lying in lab reports she knew were likely to be used in court.

I don't think I'm going out on a limb here when I tell y'all that this is far from an isolated event. I would even argue that it's to be expected whenever you have a lab that is operated for the benefit of law enforcement. The pressure is not to conduct good science, the pressure is to assist the state in the prosecution of alleged crimes. These labs are hardly independent.

The solution is to take the labs out of the hands of law enforcement and to change their mission statements to say the purpose of the lab is to test, in a reliable and accurate manner, items that might be evidence in a criminal prosecution - whether those items be supplied by prosecutors, the police or defense attorneys.

So long as law enforcement agencies pull the strings in these crime labs, analysts will always face a conflict of interest when it comes to the practice of good science versus assisting the prosecutor.

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