Mass. drug lab in evidence scandal plagued with problems
The facility at the heart of an evidence scandal was also plagued by management failures, inadequate training and a lack of protocols
By Denise Lavoie
BOSTON — A chemist who admitted faking test results in criminal cases was the "sole bad actor" in a scandal that forced the shutdown of a state drug lab in Boston, but the facility also was plagued by management failures, inadequate training and a lack of protocols, a report released Tuesday found.
The lab, formerly run by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, was closed and taken over by state police in 2012 after chemist Annie Dookhan admitted she tampered with evidence and tested only a fraction of the samples she claimed to test while working at the lab. Dookhan is now serving a prison sentence of up to five years after pleading guilty to obstruction of justice and other charges.
The scandal threw the state's legal system into turmoil as the courts were flooded with requests for new trials and dismissal of charges in cases where Dookhan had tested substances turned over to the lab by local police departments.
In a report released Tuesday, Massachusetts Inspector General Glenn Cunha said his 15-month investigation found no evidence that any other chemists at the lab committed wrongdoing. But he said management failures by lab directors "contributed to Dookhan's ability to commit her acts of malfeasance."
"The directors were ill-suited to oversee a forensic drug lab, provided almost no supervision, were habitually unresponsive to chemist's complaints and suspicions, and severely downplayed Dookhan's major breach in chain-of-custody protocol upon discovering it," the report said.
The scandal led to the resignation of a manager at the lab and the firing of another manager. The drug lab was located within the Hinton State Laboratory Institute in the Jamaica Plain section of Boston.
"What was plain well before the Annie Dookhan issue arose is that forensic work should not have been done at the Hinton facility. It should have been done at a crime lab," Gov. Deval Patrick said after release of the report.
Cunha's report said former Department of Public Health Commissioner John Auerbach and his staff "failed to respond appropriately" and conducted only a narrow investigation after receiving a report about Dookhan failing to follow protocols. It was only after state police took over the lab months later that the extent of Dookhan's misconduct was discovered.
Auerbach, who resigned several weeks after the lab was shut down to take another job outside of state government, did not immediately return messages seeking comment on the report.
"What's plain from the report is that there were management failures really up the chain ... up to the commissioner," Patrick said.
Cunha's report said the lab failed to provide potentially exculpatory evidence in criminal cases by not disclosing information about additional, inconsistent testing results. He said his office is now in the process of retesting approximately 2,300 drug samples to determine whether the results were accurate.
Cunha also found that the lab lacked formal and uniform protocols for many of its basic operations, including testing methods, caused in part by its lack of accreditation. His investigation also concluded that the lab's quality control system focused mainly on the functionality of the lab's equipment and was ineffective in detecting malfeasance, incompetence and inaccurate results.
Cunha said lab managers did not act decisively when other workers at the lab questioned Dookhan's work after it became clear she was handling a much higher volume of cases than any other chemist.
"Let's be clear, Dookhan's behavior did not go unnoticed," he said during a news conference. "Those complaints fell on deaf ears."
The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, which has been critical of the slow process the courts have used to deal with Dookhan's cases on an individual basis, said the report confirms that a more comprehensive system is needed.
"The IG report finds that Annie Dookhan was the Hinton Lab's sole intentional 'bad actor,' but it also finds that the lab and Department of Public Health were riddled with negligent actors," said Matthew Segal, the group's legal director.
"It is now impossible for anyone to claim, with any seriousness, that they know which Hinton Lab defendants, if any, got due process when they were convicted," he said.
The Massachusetts Bar Association said the state's drug labs need to be overseen by a group that is not part of law enforcement.
"There remains a dark cloud over the objectivity of any work conducted during the last decade by the Hinton drug lab," said Martin Healy, the MBA's chief legal counsel.
"While the Massachusetts State Police has done a commendable job since taking over a larger share of the state's forensic testing, any solution short of a neutral overseer, fully independent of law enforcement, is a recipe for a future catastrophe," Healy said.
Cunha made a number of recommendations, including that all forensic drug chemists should receive extensive training before analyzing any drug samples and should also participate in expert witness training and a mock trial program before testifying in court. Chemists should also receive ethics training to "ensure they remain unbiased in their forensic science responsibilities," he said in the report.
Patrick said the state has so far spent about $18 million out of a total of $30 million approved by the Legislature to deal with the crisis, mainly through gathering data on all of the cases Dookhan worked on and informing prosecutors and defense attorneys.
State officials have estimated that Dookhan worked on more than 40,000 cases during her nine years at the lab.
In response to questions from reporters, Cunha would not say whether any aspects of his report were referred to law enforcement agencies.
Copyright 2014 The Associated Press