Guilty Plea Expected In Mass. Drug Lab Scandal

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The chemist accused of falsifying thousands of drug tests at a Massachusetts crime lab is expected to plead guilty on Friday. Tens of thousands of criminal cases were compromised in the scandal. A judge is suggesting a three-to-five year prison sentence for Annie Dookhan, who is blamed for causing what some say is the most series forensic lab problem in the nation.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

In Massachusetts today, a former chemist is expected to be sent to prison over a drug lab scandal that wreaked havoc in the state's criminal justice system. The case involves the falsifying of forensic drug tests over several years, potentially compromising tens of thousands of criminal cases.

Deborah Becker, from member station WBUR, has the story.

DEBORAH BECKER, BYLINE: Thirty-six-year-old former chemist Annie Dookhan is expected to plead guilty and start serving at least a three-year sentence for allegedly causing what may be the nation's largest forensic testing scandal. Massachusetts officials identified more than 40,000 criminal cases affected by testing Dookhan did during the nine years she worked at the now-closed Hinton State Lab.

Michael O'Keefe, president of the Massachusetts District Attorneys Association, says prosecutors have sifted through hundreds of cases, and close to 350 people have been released from prison.

MICHAEL O'KEEFE: Prosecutors have been pretty reasonable about this; dealing with a problem that is not of our making, and that has to be addressed by balancing individual liberty and public safety.

BECKER: But defense attorneys are quick to point to documents from the Dookhan investigation showing that some prosecutors would often contact her directly, and Dookhan would try to get their tests done more quickly. One prosecutor resigned after his emails with Dookhan became public. Anne Goldbach, of the Massachusetts Public Defenders Agency, says forensic scientists are supposed to be impartial.

ANNE GOLDBACH: You can tell that Annie Dookhan felt a sense of allegiance to the prosecution, and that is absolutely unconscionable.

BECKER: The documents in the Dookhan case also show that for years, she tested thousands more drug samples than her colleagues. A WBUR analysis shows that between 2009 and 2010, the time it took Dookhan to conduct a test went down by more than half. Tom Workman is a defense attorney and forensic expert.

TOM WORKMAN: She continued to decrease the turnaround time. You scratch your head and say, how could someone do that? And the obvious answer that comes to mind is, they weren't doing the work. They were dry-labbing.

BECKER: Dry-labbing is when a chemist just looks at a sample, with no actual testing involved. State police say Dookhan admitted to dry-labbing when they questioned her about a year ago. After Dookhan's arrest, five of her co-workers and state Public Health Commissioner John Auerbach resigned. In announcing his resignation, Auerbach admitted that his department - which oversaw the Hinton lab - was at fault.

JOHN AUERBACH: I want to be absolutely clear: I accept no responsibility for the actions of a rogue chemist, but I do think that the Department of Public Health's managers erred in lacking proper oversight of the forensic drug laboratory.

BECKER: Still, the question remains: Why did she do it? There's little in Dookhan's history to provide an answer. She's the only child of immigrant parents who were proud of their daughter's accomplishments. Her lab supervisors described her as a valuable member of the team. During a recent hearing, Dookhan's attorney, Nicholas Gordon, said his client made mistakes trying to be the top chemist, and then tried to cover up those mistakes.

NICHOLAS GORDON: And her motivation is to be the hardest-working and most prolific and most productive chemist that she can possibly be. And that's how this whole mess begins.

BECKER: Gordon also said Dookhan is now divorced, and the primary caretaker of her 7-year-old, disabled son. So he asked the judge for a one-year prison sentence. Prosecutors asked for significantly more, citing the millions of dollars the state has spent to deal with this scandal. The judge said she would not exceed a three- to five-year sentence for actions she described as, quote, "shaking the criminal justice system to its core."

For NPR News, I'm Deborah Becker, in Boston.

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