When facing drug charges, there are numerous common defense strategies. One of the more difficult and rare strategies is to allege problems with lab testing of the drugs tied to the case. Normally, crime labs are very careful about testing procedures, preserving the chain of custody for the evidence and other matters that maintain the legitimacy of the lab results.
However, mistakes and misconduct are not unheard of. In fact, an infamous case of misconduct involving just one lab technician continues to cause problems close to a decade after the misconduct was discovered.
In 2013, a woman named Annie Dookhan pleaded guilty to dozens of criminal counts related to her nine years spent as a chemist in a Boston crime lab. Her role in that position was to process drug samples seized from criminal suspects. The list of offenses she confessed to and/or is suspected of include:
- Mishandling drug samples
- Reporting positive test results on drugs that were never even tested
- Forging signatures related to the samples
- Obstruction of justice
Ms. Dookhan’s actions went on for so long that it was nearly impossible to tell which cases were legitimate and which had been tampered with. As a result, more than 20,000 drug cases were deemed eligible for dismissal. Individual cases have been reviewed and revisited since then. And earlier this month, another 108 convictions were vacated by the local district attorney. Dookhan received a sentence of just three to five years in prison for doing damage that is still being sorted out to this day.
Some may read this story and think only of the guilty defendants who perhaps got a better outcome than they “deserved.” That’s the wrong thing to focus on. Instead, consider the many defendants who were either completely innocent and wrongfully convicted (or coerced into pleading guilty), or the defendants who were given harsher sentences than their criminal activity warranted under sentencing guidelines. Those are the worst injustices.
Thinking more broadly, this case is a reminder that our criminal justice system is made up of people, and people are imperfect and can act immorally. Even science is not objective if it is conducted dishonestly. Therefore, if you’ve been charged with a drug crime or any other criminal offense, you shouldn’t assume that you have no defense options. Instead, discuss your case with an experienced attorney who will help you explore all avenues to protect your rights and freedom.