Massachusetts State House.
Policy Library

Getting it Right: A Bargain at Any Price

August 22, 2013

A year ago when we first learned that Annie Dookhan, a chemist at one of our state drug labs, was accused of tampering with and mishandling evidence, we knew it would affect our communities, courts, prosecutors, public defenders, and probation offices.  But there was no way we could appreciate the magnitude of its impact on our entire justice system.  When the story broke, we knew it was going to be a huge and daunting problem.

Dookhan had worked at the Hinton Drug Lab for almost a decade and was associated with a database of 70,000 drug samples.  We knew solving the problem would be an expensive undertaking.  To date, the Office of Administration and Finance estimates the state has spent $7.6 million on this issue.  Finally, we knew it would take an expert to ensure the fair administration of justice.  Fortunately David Meier was appointed by Governor Patrick to make sure that we got it right.

Working in coordination with District Attorneys, the Committee for Public Counsel Services, the private defense bar, the US Attorney’s Office, the Federal Defender’s Office, the courts, and other criminal justice agencies, Meier reviewed and compiled a list of 40,323 individuals who had drug samples tested by Annie Dookhan.

Meier’s case-by-case review, first by hand and then electronically, emphasized accuracy over expediency.  Criminal justice must be tied to public safety and fundamental fairness.  “Getting it right” within this system requires investigation, resources, oversight, and reform.

It’s easy to say that one person, Annie Dookhan, is responsible for compromising over 40,000 criminal cases.  In fact, it’s more likely that her actions have revealed a systematic breakdown that let these actions go undetected for so long.

Meier’s work over the last year will go a long way to returning integrity to a criminal justice system that has been shaken by perhaps the biggest debacle in recent Massachusetts’ history.  However, there’s still work to be done – principally, we need to ensure case reviews for all the individuals affected by this scandal.

While we know more now than we did a year ago, we still don’t understand why or how this happened.  Meier’s work is done, but the Attorney General’s Office is handling the ongoing prosecution of Annie Dookhan, and the Inspector General’s Office is overseeing an investigation into the practices, procedures, and overall reliability of drug testing at the state lab.  Fixing the laboratory testing system and reviewing all the affected cases may be time consuming and expensive, but ultimately “getting it right” is what’s at stake.

– Kathleen Joyce
Director of Government Relations
Boston Bar Association