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Leonardo Angiulo: What We Learned from the Drug Lab Scandal

Monday, October 08, 2012


Leonardo Angiulo, GoLocalWorcester Legal Expert

You might not have heard that a chemist from the Commonwealth's Drug Analysis lab named Annie Dookhan admitted to tampering with evidence in drug cases. You also might not have a television, radio or ever go on the internet.  Now, you don't have to be a criminal defense attorney like me to believe that intentionally skewing evidence against a defendant is fundamentally wrong. That being said, there are a few things you need to know to understand how this happened, how her actions affected people's cases, as well as how this situation highlights why our system works the way it does. 

To start, let's identify what a drug analyst does for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Anytime a person is arrested on a drug charge, the contraband seized from that person is held as evidence against them. At trial, it is incumbent upon the prosecutor to bring proof beyond a reasonable doubt that the substance seized is what they claim it to be. A drug analyst will have previously conducted appropriate scientific testing and generate a certificate of their findings. That certificate will have been produced during the pretrial stages of the criminal case and, if necessary, the process by which the testing occurred will be explained at trial.  

Let's do a hypothetical. Let's say I am driving around Worcester with three quart-sized baggies full of a green leafy substance. A confidential informant working for the Worcester Police Department arranges to purchase one of these large baggies from me.  A controlled buy occurs and I am arrested shortly thereafter. Naturally the police will find I have two more bags of a marijuana-like substance in the car.

At this point, their subjective belief that what I have is weed may be enough to establish probable cause to arrest me.  At trial, however, there is an affirmative obligation to show that the fluffy green stuff isn't some kind of legal herbal supplement and is, in fact, a controlled substance.  Another example might be finding small white pills in my hypothetical pocket without markings and declaring they're oxycodone.  Well, for all we know, the pills may be aspirin because we have no proof either way.  And in our system, if the government doesn't bring proof of guilt the presumption of innocence prevails.

To return to Annie Dookhan, the crooked chemist, she upended this benefit normally afforded to criminal defendants by tampering with evidence.  Ms. Dookhan has admitted to tainting drug samples to create positives where they were negative, conducting “dry labbing” which is eyeballing samples rather than scientifically testing them, and otherwise disregarding lab protocol while creating certificates offered against defendants during pretrial discovery. 

We as a culture have a certain reverence for science.  We rely on doctors to make us healthy and pharmacists to get us our medicines.  We rely on professionals to tell the truth when they tell us they have conducted certain examinations and report on the results.  These things are exponentially true when the scientist in question is a government employee whose results will be admitted in evidence at trial.  By failing to do her job, Ms. Dookhan betrayed not only our trust in a government agency but also our trust in her chosen profession.

Fortunately, our criminal justice system is built to withstand these types of betrayals. The architects of our Federal and State Constitutions knew that due process and the opportunity for cross examination were powerful tools in exposing wrongdoing. Thanks to those safeguards there are thousands of incarcerated people that may be exonerated because of this injustice.  

In fact, as this article is being written, there are prosecutors and defense attorneys working together to identify cases where someone is in custody who shouldn't be.

Of course, somewhere someone is reading this and thinking that getting out of jail because of some paperwork mix up is a dirty lawyer trick.  The reality is that you and I, as taxpayers, paid for this woman to do a job and she failed to represent us faithfully.  A government actor's intentional and negligent behaviors resulted in tainted evidence that was presented to the judiciary as fact. This is the opposite of due process, this is injustice defined and that is why thousands of people may go free. It's because our Constitution requires it. 


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