Last month, the Massachusetts Office of the Attorney General began notifying approximately 7,500 people that their drug convictions have been overturned. This is just the latest chapter in the fallout from two massive scandals that have unleashed chaos in the Massachusetts court system and have called into question the integrity and fairness of forensic science.

Andrew Feiter works on a sample in Washington’s crime lab. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

Decades of watching crime shows, like CSI, has given us distorted expectations when it comes to forensic science. Here’s what supposedly happens: When police collect evidence from a crime scene it is processed by a group of independent scientists who function as impartial factfinders. Following this objective and thorough analysis, lawyers, judges, defendants, and the public at large are left feeling confident that they can trust the results from the lab.

Closer scrutiny proves this perception is a fantasy. Consistent scandals in crime labs nationwide reveal that defendants’ rights are routinely violated due to serious and systemic problems of misconduct, pseudoscientific practices, and lack of oversight. The misconduct revealed in 2012 and 2013 in Massachusetts is in a league of its own, with nothing to date comparing to the sheer number of those affected by wrongdoing in forensic labs.

Two drug lab scandals in the Massachusetts Department of Public Health have led to the dismissal of over 40,000 criminal cases and have highlighted the urgent need for oversight and reform in forensic science. Disgraced former drug lab chemists Annie Dookhan and Sonja Farak falsified test results for years, leading to tens of thousands of questionable drug convictions. Dookhan, who worked on approximately one in six drug prosecutions that led to a conviction in Massachusetts over a ten-year period, was praised as a “superwoman” chemist for her ability to process drug samples at an unusual speed.

In reality, as Dookhan admitted, her efficiency could be credited to her practice of dry-labbing—identifying substances as the narcotics that police originally suspected without actually doing the necessary chemical testing. Contrary to the role of an impartial scientist, Dookhan stated in e-mails with prosecutors that her goal was to get drug dealers “off the streets.” Dookhan even lied about her credentials in the first place, falsely claiming to have earned a master’s degree and a doctorate from Harvard.

Sonja Farak, who worked as a lab chemist for nearly nine years, similarly provided dishonest test results. Farak admitted to stealing nearly every type of drug available to her from the crime lab in Amherst and using those drugs on a daily basis while conducting analyses, even going so far as to manufacture crack cocaine in the lab using powder cocaine confiscated from criminal defendants. Over 15,000 criminal cases have been dismissed as a result of Farak’s misconduct.

The fact that so many years passed before these massive scandals were brought to light shows that internal oversight is self-evidently lacking. The Attorney General’s Office, however, also initially failed to properly hold Farak accountable and uphold the due process rights of defendants. Despite their knowledge of Farak’s drug consumption, Anne Kaczmarek and Kris Foster of the Attorney General’s Office withheld key evidence, preventing defense attorneys from knowing the scope of the problem and delaying the dismissal of tainted cases. “Their intentional and deceptive actions ensured that justice would certainly be delayed, if not outright denied, and in the process, they violated their oaths as assistant attorneys general and officers of the court,” wrote Judge Richard Carey of the Hampden County Superior Court.

© Ulrich Baumgarten via Getty Images

The absurd nature of this misconduct and the sheer magnitude of its consequences underscore the need for basic, common-sense reforms that we may previously have taken for granted. As the Massachusetts Inspector General’s Office noted in a lengthy investigation, the Department of Public Health must implement comprehensive background checks and rigorous performance evaluations. Further, a whistleblower reporting system must be in place in any forensic drug lab for employees to report malfeasance or deviation from policy. Lab chemists must be highly trained and closely scrutinized (including frequent drug tests), and protocols must be in place such that no individual chemist is solely responsible for a large number of cases. Further, oversight must be in place to ensure that lab employees remain independent from prosecutors and police.

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