Many readers are probably aware of the scandal unfolding in the Massachusetts State Police lab, where chemist Annie Dookhan has been charged with obstructing justice by falsifying data in criminal cases and lying under oath about her qualifications. Dookhan was responsible for testing substances that were suspected to be drugs. An October 9, 2012 article in the journal Nature reports that she guessed at the composition of the samples instead of testing them, she recorded positive results in some cases where the samples tested negative, and she contaminated some samples after the fact so that they would match her guesses, if tested.
The investigation of this lab scandal has revealed a large backlog of cases, and the journal Nature reports that forensic labs across the country are under pressure to keep up with heavy case loads. According to this article, interviews in a police report on the Massachusetts scandal identify the 2009 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts as a key cause of the backlog. The article quotes American Society of Crime Lab Directors Laboratory Accreditation Board (ASCLD-LAB) executive director Ralph Keaton as saying, “They’re spending all their time in the courtroom and not the laboratory. Then the backlog grows.”
ASCLD-LAB, which is headquartered in Garner, NC, accredits the labs run by the Massachusetts State Police. Keaton’s quote doesn’t link Melendez-Diaz to Dookhan’s actions, but the article could be read as implying that Melendez-Diaz may be leading to misconduct to reduce backlogs. Linking the type of misconduct that Dookhan is alleged to have committed to pressure to reduce backlogs overlooks the real question of how such grave misconduct in the lab was allowed to continue, unchecked, for months or years. In a lab of science professionals where there is adequate oversight, misconduct that affects 34,000 criminal cases, including those of 1,100 people in jail, should not occur.
For more information on this lab scandal, click here.