Earlier this fall, a forensic chemist at the Massachusetts-based crime lab William A. Hinton State Laboratory was charged with obstruction of justice. Annie Dookhan allegedly mixed drug samples, neglected to test them properly and forged colleagues' signatures throughout her nine-year career to drive up her productivity. She might not have even received the master's degree she claimed to have (University of Massachusetts officials are denying her credentials). Now a grand jury is investigating the case and is expected to return indictments against the disgraced chemist some time after today. The story is like something straight out of "Law & Order."
Which got us wondering: What exactly do forensic chemists do? And why might some feel compelled to cheat?
In crime television shows, investigators brush evidence into tiny baggies in leaky warehouses, then send the samples off to the crime lab. Minutes later, the results magically materialize, the bad guy gets convicted, and everyone else lives happily ever after.
But as Dookhan's case suggests, the reality is much less tidy and offers a dark portrait of the perverse incentives of a key aspect of the criminal justice system.
Forensic chemists are, first and foremost, scientists. These technicians usually have degrees in biology, chemistry, biochemistry or forensic science, and are trained in the sanctity of the scientific method. They specialize in either drug analysis, toxicology or arson and explosives. Adam Hall, an instructor at Boston University's School of Medicine, says drug analysts examine the five Ps: pills, plants, paraphernalia, powders and precursors (substances obtained from chemicals that are synthesized into new drugs.)
Hall says crime labs find that the three most commonly abused drugs are marijuana, cocaine and heroin. Marijuana, in particular, is easily identifiable. But even in the face of glaringly obvious evidence, lawyers don't simply present the sample as is. Each sample must be weighed, tested and confirmed as the drug in question. Dookhan was accused of "dry-labbing," looking at samples and slapping on labels without testing, which Hall says isn't considered an appropriate practice in crime labs.
"An untrained analyst would say that a white powder must be cocaine in drug analysis, but it could be almost anything," Hall says. "You certainly could group like items together but they would still require analysis to be able to determine what each of those items are."
Why does that matter? Because in a court of law, some drug convictions result in harsher sentences than others. A forensic chemist's tests could mean the difference between a misdemeanor and a felony; whether the case is tried on the state or federal level; and even whether the DEA gets involved.
That helps explain the severity of Dookhan's alleged malfeasance, resulting in an estimated 60,000 tainted drug samples. Why would someone risk it? Dr. James Woodford has worked in crime labs all over the country since 1975, noting how for many technicians, the job is heavily bound by politics, hierarchy, money, and plain old boredom.
There are three tiers of forensic chemists. Woodford says that forensic chemists in the lowest tier have the tedious job of filling out thick stacks of drug-analysis documents for minor cases simply to please the prosecution. "The technician hands them all in and what happens--nothing," Woodford says. "Most of the cases get worked out or dropped."
Woodford adds that crime labs have a high turnover rate for low-level technicians because the job doesn't pay well and isn't nearly exciting as the crime shows would have you believe. The incentive is to either quit or work your way up through the tiers as quickly as you can. The high-profile, glamorous cases are usually saved for the top-tier technicians. "You have to be there for 15 years before you get a bag of cocaine from Paris Hilton," Woodford says.
Therein lies one possible motivation to cheat: Flying through your casework offers a fast track to the top-tier work--to big cases that aren't likely to be dropped. Dookhan admitting she forged colleagues' signatures because, as the Boston Globe reported, she "wanted to get the work done," which is a daily struggle for lower tier technicians.
"Out of the hundreds of drug tests you do in a week almost all of them go away--you feel like you've done nothing," Woodford says. "It's just exasperating. It's grunt work. And the technicians start taking shortcuts."
Despite higher education, 'stupid' can show up on many levels, lol.
I get paid over $87 per hour working from home with 2 kids at home. I never thought I'd be able to do it but my best friend earns over 10k a month doing this and she convinced me to try. The potential with this is endless. Heres what I've been doing..www.Google.MEL7.CoM
If you're paid to do anything (including science), there is a potential incentive to cheat--to weight the results in one way or another. There is the answer to people who use "Scientists Say" as a justification for their preferred public policy.
What makes a President have inappropriate sexual encouters with an aid? Both people are mature and educated.
Stupid is as stupid does. ~ Forrest Gump
Seems like people are missing the point that obviously this woman ruined no less than 60,000 (!) people's lives by presenting tainted evidence in their cases!! Wow :-( Sad day for the American justice system!
Unfortunately, it seems like people of the public are already sentencing her as "guilty until proven innocent". The popular media gets away with stating what they want by precluding with "alleged". People of the public seem to forget that the acts are indeed "alleged" and has not been proven in a fair court, the way this country was built on. She has been accused, NOT convicted. It is sad to keep reading people's judgement based on whatever the media posts. From all that I've read on this topic, I find it difficult to believe any part. The articles are just not consistent. The facts are just not present. We still haven't even heard from Ms. Dookhan herself. If you've already convicted her in your mind based on what the media says, what makes you think that her accusers are not corrupt as well? There's much more to this story. Only in a fair (if even) trial and court will the true story unfold, NOT in popular media where she has already been convicted.
Consider this, if it does turn out that she is guilty, then she deserves to be punished. However, if she is innocent, then if it happened to her, then it can happen to any one of us.
Ms. Dookhan has admitted to doing it to the police. The police report has been published so people can read it. The only reason she is claiming 'not guilty' in court is so she can get a well-balanced trial.
There's no doubt that her accusers are corrupt. She's already taken several officials down with her. I'm sure that everyone named in the police report will be testifying in court, and a few of them will end up having their own trials, especially her upper management.