Plenty of people who commit non-violent drug crimes are sentenced to years, if not decades, in prison. Policymakers have argued that severe sentences are necessary to deter offenders from committing future crimes.
But Annie Dookhan was recently paroled after serving just two years of a 3-5 year sentence.
Routinely and brazenly fabricating evidence that potentially tainted 40,000 convictions in Massachusetts.
Dookhan was a chemist who worked in a Massachusetts crime lab. Bright and ambitious, Dookhan was the equivalent of a drug testing rockstar. In 2004, her first full year in the crime lab, Dookhan conducted 9,239 drug tests, or triple the number of tests conducted by the other chemists in the lab. In 2005, her second year in the lab, Dookhan performed more than double the number of tests conducted by the lab’s next-most productive chemist, and outpaced the other chemists by nearly four times their mean testing results.
The staggering numbers should have raised multiple red flags. But they didn’t. Not for almost a decade.
In the years between 2003-2012, Dookhan was involved in tens of thousands of cases. In some cases, she did not perform drug tests but fabricated results. In others, she tampered with drug samples so they would test positive for illegal drugs when there were no illegal substances at all. And sometimes she would change the weight of tested drugs so that they would trigger more serious penalties.
After several miscarriages of justice were revealed, Dookhan was arrested and, in 2013, pled guilty to a variety of charges, including tampering with evidence and filing false reports. At Dookhan’s sentencing, Judge Carol S. Ball summed up the impact of Dookhan’s lies:
Innocent persons were incarcerated, guilty persons have been released to further endanger the public, millions and millions of public dollars are being expended to deal with the chaos Ms. Dookhan created, and the integrity of the criminal justice system has been shaken to the core.
But Dookhan is out now, while many of the so-called “Dookhan defendants” continue to serve the sentences on their potentially tainted convictions.
And although some Dookhan defendants were guilty of their offenses, others were innocent, convicted of crimes that did not occur. There are lawsuits pending, and ongoing investigations into the thousands of cases impacted by her falsities.
But what strikes me most is that Dookhan – who engaged in serious and pervasive misconduct with wide and far-reaching costs – received and served a prison sentence far less severe than many of her victims. Some defendants suffered additional costs far more difficult to quantify: lost livelihoods, broken relationships from time in prison, children removed from their custody, and the trauma from incarceration. And then there are the millions of taxpayer dollars that will ultimately be spent trying to clean up Dookhan’s mess.
Wrongful convictions caused by scientific misconduct have a special taint. We rely on forensic scientists to tell us about the evidence because we don’t have the expertise to do their job. When scientists lie, and we believe them, everyone loses. Lab science fraud harms the innocent, it harms society because the convictions of guilty people are called into question, and it harms the public trust and the taxpayer coffers.
I am not a supporter of severe sentences for non-violent crimes. But if we are genuinely committed to preventing and deterring lab fraud, as I think we should be, then we need to think carefully about the message that is sent when we sentence perpetrators of lab fraud to less time than their victims.