Friday, former Massachusetts chemist Annie Dookhan pleaded guilty to all 27 counts of falsifying nearly 40,000 criminal drug cases, effectively upending the Massachusetts criminal justice system. Dookhan admitted to filing false test results, mixing drug samples together, and lying under oath about her job qualifications. She claimed that she committed her crimes to boost her job performance and was sentenced on Friday to three to five years in prison, plus probation.
Though many of the stories reporting Dookhan’s conviction focus on her alone, problems extend beyond one ambitious chemist. Dookhan’s “dry labbing” is just one part of a structure that incentivizes people working in the criminal justice system to get convictions—not truth—and put as many people in prison as possible without regard to their actual guilt.
In Massachusetts, Attorney General Martha Coakley, who heads the office prosecuting Dookhan’s case, said that Dookhan’s conviction was only one part of a greater investigation into the entire Hinton drug lab where Dookhan worked. According to the Boston Globe, state police also fired a drug analyst from the same lab for allegedly falsely claiming in court that she possessed a Bachelor’s in chemistry.
The corruption does not seem to have stayed within the lab. When Dookhan was convicted, her emails revealed close ties to prosecutors in the state, including Norfolk Assistant District Attorney George Papachristos, who resigned when the emails were released revealing a “flirtatious” friendship. Dookhan regularly performed favors for prosecutors, even asking them if she should respond to defense attorney’s requests for information. One email chain suggests that prosecutors in touch with Dookhan knew they were getting falsified results but pressed forward anyway.
As egregious as the problems appear to be in Massachusetts, the state is not at all an isolated incident of prosecutorial corruption. In Texas, for example, a prosecutor recently “achieved” a rare thing: He was recently sentenced to jail for knowingly convicting an innocent man.
Research shows that the problem reaches far beyond a few states. According to a study published last year in
Forensics labs, the study says, are funded, in part, per conviction. Not per correct rulings, but per conviction. For example, as of 2012, North Carolina paid $600 “for the services of” the crime lab per conviction. At least 13 other states have similar schemes in place.
Being paid by the state to get convictions isn’t the only way the design breeds corruption. According to a 2010 report, many state laws are actually written in such a way that law enforcement can directly profit off of property seized by those even suspected of committing a crime. Much of the time, this crime is simple drug possession. Only eight states have laws that bar the use of forfeiture proceeds for the benefit of the department. According to the report, “In the other 42 states, at least 50 percent goes to law enforcement, and in 26 states, it is 100 percent.” Massachusetts is one of those states that receives 100%.
Perhaps some of that can be put to good use since the rightful owners will never see it again: The state has already spent $8.5 million cleaning up Dookhan’s mess with another $8.6 million to be used in the current fiscal year.
Given that Massachusetts rewards its police for seizing property and that state crime labs are funded per conviction, is it really such a wonder that Annie Dookhan did what she could to ensure that her lab got as many convictions as possible?
When Dookhan pleaded guilty, Attorney General Martha Coakley said, “Certainly one of the victims in this case, and the actions of Annie Dookhan, is the public trust.” Indeed, the public’s trust has been broken, but not by Dookhan herself. Rather, it has been soiled by the criminal “justice” system that aligns everything in such a way that the most rational thing for Dookhan to do her own self interest was to put innocent people behind bars.
What we have here is not a case of one woman attempting to meet her own wild ambitions. What Americans have is a system that is designed, whether intentionally or not, to get as many people thrown in jail as possible. It is a system that is broken, and it is a system that desperately needs to be revisited. And it’s not just Massachusetts’ problem.