Unanswered Questions About the State Drug Lab Fiasco

Annie Dookhan's widespread tampering of evidence has left many questions unanswered. Here are a few of the most prominent.

It’s been nearly two months since news broke about chemist Annie Dookhan’s unprecedented, widespread mishandling of evidence at the now-closed Hinton State Lab. While numerous questions remain, one thing is for sure: In the fallout of the crisis, it’s not just Dookhan’s actions that are at stake for Massachusetts—but also millions of dollars in state funds, lab protocols, other personnel, thousands of cases, and the objectivity of Attorney General Martha Coakley’s investigation.

Here are some of the remaining questions surrounding the state drug lab fiasco and what we know about them:

1. Why is Massachusetts plowing ahead to potentially spend $100 million to re-prosecute thousands of cases—at least 34,000 drug samples were taintedwhen drug prosecutions fail to reduce overall drug addiction or drug offenses?

• The so-called “war on drugs” has not reduced crime through prosecution and conviction of ordinary drug cases. Even Governor Deval Patrick said that “the warehousing of non-violent drug offenders has proven to be a costly failure.”
• In a letter dated October 11, 2012, to Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley, the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts (ACLUM) and Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) suggested that the state shouldn’t retry cases without a charge for a violent crime or a weapons offense, should dismiss all cases involving a police officer or prosecutor who at any time communicated directly with chemist Annie Dookhan, and should allow the release of prisoners who received a sentence based on Dookhan’s testing and have served more than half of their time.

2. Who benefited from the actions of Annie Dookhan, and will she point the finger so she isn’t the only one to to take the fall?

• Several Suffolk County prosecutors asked for Dookhan by name. A Norfolk County prosecutor resigned over his connection to Dookhan.
• While the public has been lead to believe Annie Dookhan was a “rogue chemist,” David Boeri, of WBUR, says it’s more like we had a “rogue laboratory” that failed to check and retest, or enforce protocols and measures to keep tabs on those doing the testing.

3. How different was the environment at the state drug lab from any other workplace where employees are afraid to report misconduct?

• The U.S. has workplace standards and whistleblower protections for any work environment, precisely to protect those who fear repercussions in the workplace.

4. Why does one gram of a drug make the difference between one sentence and another? Should weight equal culpability?

• Barbara Dougan, director of FAMM in Massachusetts, says that under drug sentencing laws in Massachusetts, the addict who agrees to do a favor for a dealer—give a ride, make a phone call—in order to earn a few bucks is prosecuted according to the weight of the drug, just like the dealer. According to Dougan, he or she can be subject to the same penalties as big time players “because our trafficking laws are based solely on the weight of the drugs involved and nothing else.”

5. If the Attorney General’s office controls any part of the case, how can we be assured of an unbiased investigation?

• Before Coakley was Attorney General, she was the District Attorney of Middlesex County from 1999 to 2007. She worked closely with prosecutors and Assistant District Attorneys. Coakley must continue to work closely with DA offices as she investigates the Dookhan case.
• A letter from a coalition of lawyers, the Mass Bar, and ACLUM asked the Attorney General to appoint an independent investigator saying that the “body that steers this investigation … cannot be perceived as having any stake in the outcome.”
• The Boston Globe reported on October 31, 2012, that “The attorney general’s office wants to focus on a criminal investigation of Annie Dookhan … and let the independent investigator take a broader look at the problem.”
• So again: Why is Coakley’s office still investigating Annie Dookhan?