Many Questions Still Unanswered About the Massachusetts Drug Lab Scandal

It’s been seven months since the Massachusetts Drug Lab scandal broke. Why are we still in the dark about the mess that will potentially cost Massachusetts $100 million?

By now, you must have had your head under that proverbial rock if you haven’t heard the words “Massachusetts Drug Lab Scandal.” On Dec. 17, 2012, former state employee Annie Dookhan, called a “rogue chemist” by Governor Deval Patrick, was indicted on 27 charges, including 17 counts of obstruction of justice and eight counts of tampering with evidence, stemming from her misconduct at the Hinton State Laboratory Institute.
Maybe it was the Ides of March, or maybe, after seven months, we are just plain tired of hearing that Dookhan is the biggest piece of the puzzle. Along with enacting massive changes to our system, we need to clear up more unanswered questions about how Massachusetts found itself in this bonanza of a crisis, a scandal that is not just about Annie Dookhan.

1. Was there so much pressure from prosecutors to get guilty convictions that it impacted Dookhan’s actions?
This question comes from Acton Sen. James Eldridge, who was among those attending a public forum titled “Unintended Consequences: Annie Dookhan and the Drug War” on March 16 at the Maynard Public Library. Eldridge, who has filed four criminal justice reform bills for the 2013-2014 legislative session and has been critical of so-called “drug war” policies, rejects the idea that prosecutors are impartial. While he stopped short of saying there was direct prosecutorial involvement in the Dookhan case, he did say, “In my experience with the Three-strikes bill, district attorneys were behind closed doors trying to ensure [its] passage.”

2. Why haven’t Norfolk’s George Papachristos and others been under indictment?
The Globe hinted in late 2012 at concerns about unseemly prosecutorial involvement, stating that Dookhan’s emails showed she had “ties to prosecutors.”

3. Did someone or some groups knowingly depend on Annie Dookhan for convictions, and did anyone at the lab collude?
If you take a look at the 100-page police report, you certainly will wonder why the public isn’t getting more concrete answers about the involvement of anyone whose last name isn’t Dookhan. And while we can’t say there was some sort of explicit stake in the outcome of Dookhan’s work, the report makes a relationship between the Crime Lab and those who depended on its results look questionable.

4. Why did Dookhan get the run of the lab?
As mentioned in the report, she had codes, keys, and access that belied her level at the lab.

5. Why were so many at the lab concerned—yet few did anything to stop her?
Several chemists suspected she was falsifying reports and forging signatures, and a couple of supervisors reported their concerns. In the end, people made excuses, but Dookhan stayed on.

6. Why were some Assistant District Attorneys disobeying protocol by calling Dookhan directly instead of the Evidence Office?
In the report, Lab Supervisor Peter Piro indicates they were.

7. How could someone do an audit of Dookhan’s work in 2010 and not find anything wrong?
Dookhan started at the Hinton State Lab in 2003, and according to figures provided by the Department of Public Health, in the year 2004 alone, “Dookhan tested 9,239 drug samples, more than three times the number typically tested by the other chemists in the lab.”

8. Is having evidence in Massachusetts cases investigated and tested at a forensics lab run by the State Police instead of the Department of Health really the best way to assure an unbiased result?
Shutting down the Jamaica Plain and Amherst labs—both are closed since another chemist from Northampton was charged with tampering with drug evidence—created a ripple-effect of issues. According to MetroWest, all testing, formerly supervised by the Department of Public Health, is now being performed at the Massachusetts State Police lab in Sudbury. The backlog is enormous as prosecutors wait for results. “Drug samples [have] mushroomed from 400 to 14,000 in the seven months since the Annie Dookhan evidence tampering scandal,” and this, MetroWest says, is “according to police.”

9. So what about the defendants who have been released as a result of the Dookhan case?
Former Federal Judge Nancy Gertner recently pointed out that “many are lamenting that defendants who have been released as a result of the Dookhan case lack proper supervision and are thus re-offending.” Her point? “These defendants may well re-offend regardless, because the system is so flawed.” Gertner goes on to suggest a need for meaningful change: “If we reallocated resources from the failed drug war and invested instead in things that actually work—preventive programs to keep people out of the drug trade, well-regulated laboratories for those who are prosecuted, or on meaningful post-prison supervision,” then we’d have a shot.