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In Massachusetts, a former chemist is now behind bars after pleading guilty to charges in a crime lab scandal that raises questions about how states oversee forensic testing. Tens of thousands of criminal cases are potentially compromised and hundreds of people have been released from Massachusetts prisons because of sloppy drug evidence testing that went on for years. From member station WBUR, Deborah Becker reports.
DEBORAH BECKER, BYLINE: Former chemist Annie Dookhan began serving a three- to five-year prison sentence yesterday after pleading guilty to falsifying tests of drug evidence and helping to create one of the nation's largest drug lab scandals. Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley says the state is taking steps to improve forensic testing.
MARTHA COAKLEY: It is certainly lessons learned. We hope that we've made changes in the system that will mean this unique case will not happen again in Massachusetts.
BECKER: Dookhan admitted that she didn't always test the drug evidence she said she did, and that she sometimes forged co-workers' signatures. She didn't know how often that happened during her nine years at the lab, but records show she routinely tested thousands more samples than her colleagues. A state review determined that 40,000 criminal cases relied on Dookhan's testing. But some say that's just the beginning.
ANNE GOLDBACH: We expect it could be tens of thousands more.
BECKER: Anne Goldbach of the Massachusetts public defenders agency says initial reports from an ongoing state inspector general investigation show that oversight at the lab was so lax that every case that used its testing is now in doubt.
GOLDBACH: The potential could be 190,000. Part of that depends on what we learn about the entire lab. But right now, the entire lab is still suspect.
BECKER: So far, almost 350 people have been released from prison and hundreds more have had their charges dismissed. State officials estimate it will cost hundreds of millions of dollars over the next several years to handle all the criminal and civil suits stemming from the scandal. They say all of this was caused by one woman, a quote, "rogue chemist" who simply wanted to be the most productive worker in the lab. But Matt Segal with the Massachusetts branch of the American Civil Liberties Union doesn't buy it.
MATT SEGAL: There is no way Annie Dookhan could have committed this misconduct by herself. There were failures up and down. And the documents that we've seen show that that's what happened. The lab was in disarray, there was no accountability.
BECKER: The rules about lab accountability in the United States are all over the map, and there's not just one set of them or one agency enforcing them. The now closed Hinton drug lab where Dookhan worked was one of a handful of the roughly 400 publicly funded forensic labs in the U.S. that are not accredited. Very few states require accreditation.
The Massachusetts Department of Public Health, which ran the lab, says it was operating under nationally established recommendations for testing drug evidence. But forensic consultant Joe Bono, who helped write those recommendations, says they're only as good as the people who enforce them.
JOE BONO: Either the red flags went up and they weren't paid attention to, or there were no red flags because the recommendations weren't being followed.
BECKER: A red flag that Massachusetts defense attorneys often cite is Dookhan's communication with prosecutors, several of whom called her directly about their tests. Prosecutors bristle at any suggestion that they tried to influence work at the lab. They've also rejected calls to outright dismiss all cases linked to Dookhan, and they've asked the state's highest court for guidance on how to handle the cases she was involved with. Essex County District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett says his focus is public safety, and he says many of these defendants face more than just drug charges.
JONATHAN BLODGETT: It's sort of become urban myth, in my opinion, that all these individuals are languishing in jail because of Annie Dookhan and it's just drugs only. It's not. Most of these cases have accompanying charges of violence.
BECKER: Whether the Massachusetts scandal leads to improved drug testing remains to be seen. The National Academy of Sciences issued a report in 2009 saying that the increasing reliance on scientific tests in court demands stronger national oversight. It also recommended removing all testing from under the supervision of law enforcement to prevent any conflicts. Despite that, the testing in Massachusetts is now under the control of state police. For NPR News, I'm Deborah Becker in Boston.