tom keane

Crime lab scandal is symptom of underfunded courts


Perhaps more than 1,000 violent criminals will be unleashed on the streets of Boston and surrounding communities in the next several weeks. The effect, almost certainly, will be a surge in crime. People will be hurt; some may die. It’s easy to pin the blame on one employee, so-called “rogue chemist” Annie Dookhan. But the real blame reaches far wider. What happened was predictable, a matter of accountability and funding. State politicians — legislators and the governor — gave short shrift to the court system, systematically ignoring problems and cutting budgets so deeply as to create the crisis Massachusetts now faces.

And a crisis it is. Dookhan, a senior state chemist at the state crime lab, allegedly mishandled and falsified an unknown number of drug samples. Over nine years, she was responsible for up to 60,000 samples used in 34,000 criminal cases. Few think that most — or even more than a handful — of the suspects convicted in those cases were actually innocent. But all of the cases are tainted.

And how did Dookhan manage this? Here’s a typical scenario. Police would seize an alleged drug from a suspect and send the sample to the crime lab. A lead — or primary — chemist would test the sample to ensure it was a prohibited substance. If so, the sample would be sent to a secondary chemist who would use a device — a mass spectrometer — to confirm the primary chemist’s conclusion.


On many occasions, however, Dookhan would allegedly forgo the time-intensive primary testing process and make a guess — called “dry labbing” — before sending the substance to the secondary chemist. Most of the time, her guess was accurate, but on some occasions, the mass spectrometer would come up with a different result. When that occurred, Dookham allegedly would take back the sample, doctor it with the drug it was “supposed” to be, and then send it back to the secondary chemist for re-analysis.

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What drove her to do this? And why didn’t anyone figure it out?

Before State Police took over the crime lab in July, it was located within the Department of Public Health. The reason for this is uncertain, but since the mission of DPH is public health — things like encephalitis and diabetes — running a crime lab was well outside of both its interest and expertise. The lab, located in Jamaica Plain, was shabby and poorly managed. It was the state’s various district attorneys who most cared about prompt and accurate testing, but all they could do was complain from the outside (which they had been doing for years). Thus, for instance, Dookhan was testing up to 500 samples a month — three or four times as many as her fellow chemists. But the lack of supervision meant alarm bells were never triggered.

Then too, the burden on the crime labs dramatically increased in 2009. That was the year the US Supreme Court concluded, in Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts, that chemists physically had to show up in court and testify as to their findings. Before then, a written certification had been enough. Yet despite this new workload, the lab’s budget was cut.

Indeed, underfunding is par for the course when it comes to the court system. Half the job of keeping streets safe is having an effective police force, a task we usually assign to local governments. Because voters hold them accountable, mayors and town managers are determined to make sure their public safety budgets are maintained.


But the other half of public safety comes after the cops make an arrest and DAs, defense attorneys, judges, and jails get involved. Funds for the court system come from the state, but there is no strong constituency advocating for keeping budgets up (voters typically don’t think their legislators have much influence on crime).

And so, as the 2008 recession hit, the crime lab’s budget was slashed, from $15.7 million in fiscal year 2009 to today’s low of $12.1 million. Crime lab employees were expected to do vastly more with vastly less and one of them — at least — cracked.

Budget cuts created desperation. A lack of supervision created opportunity. What Dookhan did was wrong, but so too was the system that made it possible. The money now spent cleaning up this mess will be far greater than any once saved.

Tom Keane writes weekly for the Globe. He can be reached at tomkeane@tomkeane.com.