MASSACHUSETTS — In one of the largest frauds in Massachusetts history, a state crime lab analyst used her position of analyzing chemical evidence to intentionally forge results in order to get convictions for prosecutors with whom she had friendly ties, and to satisfy her drive to imprison drug offenders. After years of tampering with evidence her actions may have tainted more than 40,000 drug samples, involving thousands of defendants.
Annie Dookhan, a 35-year-old chemist employed by the State of Massachusetts, was known for her ability to process drug samples confiscated from suspects at triple the speed of her colleagues. Her work at the state crime lab in the Boston neighborhood of Jamaica Plain was regarded highly by prosecutors who could count on her to produce the results they needed to achieve convictions.
In reality she had spent years abusing her position and corrupting justice for her own amusement. She had affirmed the presence of drugs in samples that she had not bothered to test. She had forged signatures, tampered with evidence, and lied in court about her credentials to enhance her standing as an expert witness.
Her career of misconduct began to face scrutiny in 2010 when her work was audited due to the unusually fast processing times, but no evidence of corruption were discovered. In 2011, she was caught forging a colleague’s initials and improperly removing drugs from the evidence storage area for 60 Norfolk County cases, which led to her suspension. However, her lab duties and involvement in drug cases were somehow permitted to continue and she still testified as an expert witness in court. It was not until February 2012 that she was actually placed on administrative leave.
“I screwed up big time. I messed up. I messed up bad. It’s my fault. I don’t want the lab to get in trouble,” Dookhan was quoted saying in the police report.
The state launched an investigation into Dookhan’s nearly decade-long career, costing tens of millions of dollars and the analysis of many legal experts and attorneys. “I don’t think anyone ever perceived that one person was capable of causing this much chaos,” said Norfolk County District Attorney Michael Morrissey. “You can see the entire walls full of boxes,” he said, gesturing at stacks of dusty file boxes towering six feet high. “In one of these cardboard boxes, there could be hundreds of cases … in each box.”
David Meier, a Boston attorney, was hired to determine the scope of the scandal. He found that in Dookhan’s 9-year employment with the lab, the cases of as many as 40,323 people might have been tainted. The thousands of defendants were called “Dookhan defendants.”
Defense attorneys argued that every piece of evidence handled by Dookhan should be considered untrustworthy and that their clients cases should be thrown out. And many have been — over 300 prisoners were released since her admission of altering evidence in 2012.
“Innocent persons were incarcerated,” said Justice Carol S. Ball of Suffolk’s Superior Court. “Guilty persons have been released to further endanger the public, millions and millions of public dollars are being expended to deal with the chaos Ms. Dookhan created, and the integrity of the criminal justice system has been shaken to the core.”
As her career was analyzed, she was discovered to have repeatedly made up fanciful job titles for herself, such as “special agent of operations” for the FBI and other federal agencies. Her pathological lying even led her to claim in emails to be an “on-call terrorism supervisor.”
While coaching assistant district attorneys on trial strategy, she was quoted to have said that her goal was “getting [drug dealers] off the streets,” exposing her bias for finding evidence of guilt in the lab samples. Emails obtained by the Boston Globe reportedly exposed Dookhan’s strong desire to put criminals behind bars.
The ethics of her relationships with prosecutors was questionable. When Dookhan told a prosecutor in an email that she could not testify as an expert witness in her case, the female prosecutor replied, “No no no!!! I need you!!!” Apparently she was depending on Dookhan’s unique form of “expertise” to land her conviction.
Other prosecutors were so thrilled with Dookhan’s work that they fawned over her in emails and promised to take the chemist out for cocktails as a reward for her lab work. Dookhan was called a member of a prosecutor’s “dream team” by one district attorney.
One prosecutor with whom she was particularly friendly was Norfolk Assistant District Attorney George Papachristos. The two had a close working relationship. The Boston Globe reported:
“Glad we are on the same team,” he once wrote Dookhan — including one day in May 2010 when he told her he needed a marijuana sample to weigh at least 50 pounds so that he could charge the owners with drug trafficking.
“Any help would be greatly appreciated!” he wrote, punctuating each sentence with a long string of exclamation points. “Thank you!”
Two hours later, Dookhan responded: “OK . . . definitely Trafficking, over 80 lbs.” Papachristos thanked her profusely.
Papachristos resigned October 2012 after the Boston Globe disclosed his flirtatious friendship with the lab analyst. They shared pet names for each other; hers was “kiddo,” his was “old man.” The two shared stories of their marital problems, career aspirations, and shared Greek heritage. Dookhan began using her maiden name, “Khan,” in her emails and claimed she was divorced. She once sent him an email saying that she needed a man “to love me and make me laugh.” Papachristos denied that the two had an affair, but his friendly text-messages caused Dookhan’s husband to step in and exchange words with the D.A. in 2009.
The state has not pursued former district attorney Papachristos for any legal wrongdoing.
The state legislature has allotted $30 million for local prosecutors to reinvestigate cases of freed prisoners and see if they can charge them with crimes based on evidence not tainted by the crime lab. And that money is “just the tip of the iceberg.” The situation could cost Massachusetts over $100 million, reported the Boston Globe, in reanalyzing and retrying cases that were supposed to be already closed.
On November 22nd, Dookhan pleaded guilty to 27 counts, including obstruction of justice, perjury and tampering with evidence, and was sentenced to 3-5 years in prison, plus two years’ probation. Prosecutors had sought 5-7 years.
Its hard to quantify the amount of damage that Dookhan accomplished. She victimized hundreds of people — perhaps thousands — with her corrupt practice. Her miscarriage of justice caused innocent people to lose not only their freedom, but their children, their jobs, their spouses, their property, and years of their lives. Then there is the catastrophic burden she is responsible for placing on the taxpayers, which is estimated to exceed the extraordinary sum of $100 million.
The injustice she committed cannot be measured. And she will be out in 3-5 years.
Had she committed any number of non-violent drug or firearm offenses — that victimize no one — the penalty could easily reach 10 or 20 years in prison. But her admitted 9-year crime spree, that destroyed innumerable lives, earned her only a fraction of that punishment. In twisted irony, Dookhan turned out to be more of a menace to society in her government job than the thousands of non-violent drug offenders she obsessively sought to imprison could have ever hoped to be. But her punishment is less than many of theirs. Justice?
UPDATE: A SECOND LAB CHEMIST HAS BEEN FIRED; DOUBT CAST OVER 190,000 CASES
A second crime lab “chemist” has been fired over doubts concerning her qualifications.
Kate Corbett, who worked in the same lab as Dookhan, claimed that she had a “chemistry degree” from Merrimack College.
Corbett never earned that degree, according to a report. She was actually a sociology major who took a few chemistry classes.
Using false pretenses, Corbett also may have testified as a chemistry “expert” in dozens of court cases, which could add to the devastation that Dookhan has already caused.
Defense attorneys argue that doubt has been cast over 190,000 cases which were processed by the Hinton lab, and all of them should be reviewed in the interest of justice.
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