Wrongly convicted prisoners are about to be released in Massachusetts after it was found that a chemist at a state lab tainted evidence. It is staggering the amount of damage that this single chemist managed to create.
When I was in law school, the Supreme Court ruled on a case that was being argued by the Massachusetts Attorney General. The case was Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts. In order to prove a criminal case that involves drugs, prosecutors routinely submit drug lab tests. The court ruled that it was a violation of the Sixth Amendment for prosecution to submit a drug lab test if the chemist was not available for testimony. In other words, under the Confrontation Clause, the defendant had a right to confront on the stand the chemist who was testifying against them. I thought it was a good ruling. The criminal justice system is severely underfunded and that is bound to create issues in the testing and processing of evidence. Plus, I figured, chemist can make mistakes.
Turns out, they can also just fuck things up royally. Annie Dookhan worked at the Massachusetts State Lab from 2003 to 2012. She handled thousands of cases. In fact, she handled many, many more cases than her coworkers. For example, in 2004, her coworkers averaged 3,000 cases that year. Dookhan handled 9,000. And it turns out that she had been mixing samples to contaminate the evidence, recalibrating weights to enhance the penalty and otherwise not following procedure.
So how was it discovered that she had tainted the evidence? She left the lab earlier this year. But she still had produced these lab reports that were being used in trials. Her coworkers were asked to come in and testify to the accuracy of her reports. And they refused. Because they did not want to perjure themselves on the stand. Yeah, Confrontation Clause!
But just imagine this. Not only are innocent people sitting in prison because of her, but now every piece of evidence she ever tested is now suspect. And she tested 60,000 pieces of evidence. That means that even if the person was guilty as sin, they will probably be released because there is no way to know if the evidence was reliable. And think about this. We have draconian drug laws. So not only are people in jail who shouldn’t be, but immigrants have been deported, and property has been seized and sold off. Students convicted of drug crimes are not able to get student loans. Peoples’ lives have been derailed. And we never would have known it if it hadn’t been for Melendez-Diaz.
I kind of got into it with a professor of mine when this ruling first came down. He thought this was just going to be an administrative nightmare and create a clusterfuck in the criminal court of people demanding to cross examine state chemist (he didn’t actually say clusterfuck).
But you know what? The Constitution is an administrative nightmare. It is supposed to slow down the system. Because even with a government as fractured, divided, bloated and incompetent as ours, it is still enormously powerful in relation to the people when it bears its weight. If the government is going to send you to prison, deport you, make it nearly impossible for you to go to college – they better have to jump through a whole lot of hoops to do it.