Flawed forensics: Undoing the dirty work of Annie Dookhan

One Massachusetts chemist may have contaminated more than 40,000 criminal cases; now the state has to fix it

File cabinets and legal boxes line the walls, stuffed with manila folders of court documents. Unofficially, it’s the Annie Dookhan room, dedicated to the once glorified state chemist who has turned the process of determining guilt or innocence on its head.

The filing location in the Plymouth County District Attorney’s office in Massachusetts is designated for the storage of paperwork pertaining to ongoing cases tainted by Dookhan, whose job involved analyzing evidence for the presence of drugs.

District Attorney Tim Cruz estimates at least 1,000 cases in Plymouth County were affected by Dookhan. That’s just a tiny fraction of the more than 40,000 cases affected across the state, in one of the biggest criminal justice scandals in Massachusetts’ history. Dookhan’s actions allowed criminals back onto the streets, and forced others to face stiff penalties for crimes they never committed.

“I think [her name] brings significant disappointment,” Cruz told America Tonight, “and a lot of good hard work by a lot of good people was thrown out the window because of her activities.”

Last November, Dookhan pleaded guilty to 27 counts of misleading investigators, filing false reports and tampering with evidence, and was sentenced to three to five years in prison. The judge called the consequences of her crimes “nothing short of catastrophic.”

Now, the state faces the gargantuan task of fixing it.

The contamination

At first, Dookhan seemed to be a star forensics expert who worked at a record pace at the state’s William A. Hinton State Laboratory Institute, a drug-testing lab operated by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.

For nearly 10 years, she seemed to work quickly and diligently, helping process evidence in drug cases by identifying and weighing substances like cocaine and heroin. But it would eventually come to light that the star chemist not only fabricated her credentials, but also her lab results.

According to court records, she handled drug samples without supervision, “forged” the initials of other chemists, and “intentionally contaminate[d]” samples during her analysis.

Sometimes, she did something called “drylabbing.” Instead of actually conducting a test on the drugs, she would just eyeball them to guess what they might be.

The drug-testing lab where Annie Dookhan worked.
America Tonight

Dookhan’s lab results influenced many people to plead guilty to avoid a risky trial, according to Anne Goldbach, the forensic services director at the Committee for Public Counsel Services, the state agency that defends indigent individuals in court cases.

“It was almost overwhelming,” she said. “We’re faced in many states across this nation with mandatory sentences in drug cases for increasingly larger amounts of drugs, increasingly bigger sentences.”

She added: “There are people who plead guilty to cut their losses even when they may not be guilty.”

On Aug. 30, 2013, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick shut down the facility while authorities got a handle on how to address the breach of trust. In Plymouth County, Cruz has assigned extra staff to research and manage every case that Dookhan may have touched dating back to 2003. 

Tipping the scale

Michelle Devlin as a teenager.
Courtesy of Michelle Devlin

Michelle Devlin said she was a drug addict when police found heroin in a house where she was staying in 2009. The “official” weight of the drugs, determined by the drug lab, was enough to bump a minor possession charge to a felony trafficking charge, which meant the 19-year-old faced a possible 10-year prison sentence.

Devlin pleaded to the lesser charge of possession to avoid time behind bars, and served probation instead. But the fact that she was once charged with trafficking remained on her record.

Devlin believes Dookhan tampered with the drugs in her case.

Devlin said that a private investigator determined the drugs in her case did not actually weigh enough to qualify for a felony charge. “It makes sense when the news then came out saying [Dookhan] tampered with weights,” she said.

Devlin’s case was a Dookhan case. Her attorney Todd Pomerleau fought to have the original plea reversed, and won. But even still, evidence of the charges remain on her record, visible to anyone screening her for an apartment or a job.

Devlin is sure it’s damaging her future. “It just looks so awful,” she said. “I don’t see anyone thinking, ‘Oh it’s dismissed, that means she was innocent.’”  

Rewinding injustice

Plymouth County District Attorney Tim Cruz.
America Tonight

So far, Cruz’s office has reported approximately 10 cases that have gone back to trial and obtained convictions. There have also been nine cases at the Superior Court level, and 64 at the District Court level, in which the prosecutors determined they would reverse their original decision to prosecute.

But unless the prosecution decides to reverse its decision, anyone convicted based on Dookhan’s evidence must hire a lawyer if they’d like to reopen the case.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts believes this long and costly process puts an undue burden on defendants. It has filed a petition with the state Supreme Court, asking it to vacate all drug convictions based on Dookhan’s testimony.

“Annie Dookhan went to jail, but they let convictions stand,” said Carl Williams, an ACLU attorney who helped file the petition. “That isn’t the way. That’s not American… You don’t get to cheat and win, and I think that really – at the core of this – that those convictions shouldn’t stand because they were based in fraud.”

The ACLU believes the burden should be on prosecutors to go back to square one, and prove the individuals are guilty. Williams admits that this could mean that some guilty individuals get off the hook, but he said it would at least be fair.

Not everyone is on board though with the idea of dismissing the cases of 40,000 people.

“I think it’s a terrible idea,” Cruz said. “…A better idea is doing what we’re doing: Individually putting the hours in – the painstaking hours – of going through these files and making sure we can keep some of these convictions.”

He believes the vast majority of the individuals involved in Dookhan cases are guilty of the crimes. And while the process might be costly and lengthy, he argued: “What’s the cost of a homicide? What’s the cost of another drug crime?” 

Michelle Devlin is now in methadone treatment, and has been especially committed to recovery since the birth of her baby Patrick.
America Tonight

So far, there’s been one reported homicide that an offender released as a result of the Dookhan scandal has been accused of comitting. In 2012, Donta Hood had his conviction thrown out after it was discovered that Dookhan had tested the evidence and testified at his trial. He was released from prison two years early, and last May was charged with murder.

“The murder indictments say that he shot Charles Evans three times in the chest with a firearm,” said Cruz. “He should’ve been in jail.”

Now, a new mom working to stay clean, Devlin admits she wasn’t entirely innocent. “I was doing drugs. There were times that I broke the law, obviously, using drugs and buying drugs,” she said.

But she says she believes the fundamental fact of her charge – the weight of the drugs that triggered a trafficking charge – was fraudulent.

“If they want to be fair,” she said, “it wasn’t fair.” 

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