Despite Scandals, Nation's Crime Labs Have Seen Little Change Last year in Massachusetts, chemist Annie Dookhan was sent to prison for falsifying drug tests. Her misconduct tainted thousands of cases, and was one of the largest crime lab scandals in U.S. history. Critics say it raises a larger question: Do forensic analysts serve the truth, or the prosecution?
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Despite Scandals, Nation's Crime Labs Have Seen Little Change

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Despite Scandals, Nation's Crime Labs Have Seen Little Change



This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

Congress could take up legislation in the new year, aimed at improving oversight of the nation's crime labs. But critics are skeptical and say reform is unlikely, despite some recent major lab scandals.

From member station WBUR, Deborah Becker has more.

DEBORAH BECKER, BYLINE: Although former Massachusetts chemist Annie Dookhan was sent to prison in November for falsifying drug tests, many of the tens of thousands of criminal cases affected by her bogus testing are still in limbo. Boston defense attorney Todd Pomerleau represents about two dozen people who were convicted based on Dookhan's tests.

TODD POMERLEAU: We're basically in this holding pattern where we keep waiting. We've been waiting for, you know, the proverbial day in court.

BECKER: When the scandal broke in August of 2012, those incarcerated based on evidence Dookhan tested, did have a day in court. Many were identified immediately and had their sentences stayed. More than 3200 so-called drug lab court hearings have been held and 352 people have been released from Massachusetts prisons.

Matt Segal, with the ACLU of Massachusetts, is looking at legal ways to try to get the state to deal with the affected cases more quickly.

MATT SEGAL: The state has already spent hundreds of millions of dollars on this scandal and what have we gotten for that expenditure? The answer is almost nothing. Certainly hasn't been justice. It hasn't been a better approach to the drug war.

BECKER: Prosecutors say they're waiting for a few things; a court ruling on how deal with all of the affected cases, and an investigation into all lab operations. Attorney Pomerleau says with Massachusetts having the nation's largest lab scandal, defense attorneys in the state are now more likely to question forensic testing and to scrutinize the analyst involved, especially because Dookhan was also convicted of lying about her credentials.

POMERLEAU: She's testifying under oath apparently that she had a master's degree. And the Commonwealth couldn't even confirm whether she went to the school?


POMERLEAU: You know, I require my interns to show me a transcript and apparently the lab had different protocols in place for employment.

BECKER: Here's the thing: There are no national regulations governing forensic analyst's credentials. In fact, there are no uniform standards for the labs themselves and there is more than one group that accredits labs. The nonprofit that accredits most of the crime labs in the U.S. is called ASCLD/LAB. ASCLD/LAB'S Chief Operations Officer John Neuner says accreditation can only go so far and the issue in Massachusetts probably was deeper.

JOHN NEUNER: It just sounds like an ethical issue. Certainly a laboratory can have all the policies and procedures in the world, but if you don't have ethical people working there, then you're going to have problems.

BECKER: Accreditation from ASCLD/LAB lasts for five years. It requires yearly inspections, which are announced. And corrective action plans are drawn up if violations are found. Neuner admits though, to his knowledge, no lab has ever had its accreditation revoked. The now-closed Hinton Drug Lab, where Annie Dookhan worked, was not accredited. But forensic consultant Brent Turvey says that might have made things worse.

BRENT TURVEY: In the Hinton Lab, if they were accredited, the incentive to commit the kind of fraud that Annie Dookhan was committing would have been higher because the issue would have been maintaining accreditation. In fact, the majority of labs that where forensic fraud is exposed, the majority of them are ASCLD/LAB accredited.

BECKER: Turvey says there have been at least 12 crime lab scandals in the U.S. over the past two years. He says with more criminal cases relying on forensics, lab oversight is something Congress needs to address.

TURVEY: The forensic science community is not like any other community. It is not beholden to anyone other than the police and prosecutors. The question is, are we creating crime fighters or are we creating scientists? And do we require them to tell the truth or do we try to require them to help the police and prosecution?

SEGAL: A report to Congress raised that same question almost five years ago but there has been little movement toward change. In Massachusetts, most forensic testing is now overseen by state police. In November, a chemist who had worked with Dookhan but was moved to the state police lab after the scandal broke was fired for lying about her credentials.

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


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