By now, most of us have heard of Massachusetts crime lab chemist Annie Dookhan. Ms. Dookhan was arrested in September for allegedly obstructing justice by falsifying her lab work, providing false testimony and lying about her credentials. The lab has shut down and the investigation is ongoing. Her fake work may have affected as many as 60,000 lab results involving as many as 34,000 accused. Many wrongfully convicted inmates have already been released. Ms. Dookhan faces 20 years in prison if she is convicted.
In my opinion, twenty years is a slap on the wrist, given the egregious amount of damage a wrongful conviction inflicts on a person’s life and family. A twenty-year sentence for a crime of nonviolence can in reality only amount to as little as three to four years served before parole eligibility. I am personally in favor of per se zero-tolerance laws regarding forensic fraud: Any time a lab analyst falsifies lab results, falsely claims not to have the ability to test for items, lies about education or credentials, presents fake, made-up science to juries, or passes him or herself off as an ‘expert’ in clinical medicine and presents inappropriate and false clinical testimony to juries, that person should be subject to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Such actions amount to nothing less than rape, under color of a white coat.
The Massachusetts lab scandal is anything but unique. Most of the media attention to forensic fraud thus far has been related to DNA technology and exonerations, however. Now it is time to look at non-DNA lab analyst fraud that, while it may not lead to a death sentence, it does lead to irreversible destruction of lives and careers.
Many of you know that I was convicted of a DUI in Kentucky with no bad driving and two exculpatory lab results, indicating 1) 0.00 alcohol content of blood and 2) “no drugs detected” in the blood. This DUI led to other charges and convictions related to a controlled substance the arresting officer supposedly ‘found’ in his cruiser after an hour-and-a-half long roadside search of my vehicle and my person revealed no illegal substances. I received an eight-year sentence.
At trial the prosecution advanced its theory: that I was dangerously impaired on my prescription medication, Klonopin. The dangerous impairment was obvious: I had supposedly “failed” a roadside HGN (horizontal gaze nystagmus) test. The reason the lab missed such a high level of this commonly prescribed medicine is that 1) the lab had no idea what to look for and 2) the lab had no way of testing for its presence and 3) if only the lab had known, it would have sent the blood to a third-party contract lab.
Six-and-one-half years after the arrest and affirmed convictions, I began looking at the trial testimony in my own case. I also made some inquiries. I learned, to my utter horror, that the lab did, in fact, have notification to look for this drug in my blood. I also learned that the crime labs typically do presumptive testing for substances. If nothing is detected during the preliminary testing, there is no need for confirmatory further identification and quantification because the drug in question was either 1) not present or 2) not present at any level of toxicological (or therapeutic) value or interest. I learned from a conversation with the maker of Klonopin that any trial testimony departure from the FDA-approved product insert is inappropriate.
At my trial, after misleading the jury in my case about the lab’s notification that this was indeed a drug to look for, as it was listed which as a valid prescription at the time of the arrest, the lab analyst put on his physician’s hat and provided a rather impressive false testimonial about 1) the drug’s “immediate effects” at therapeutic levels, including, but not limited to “both vertical and horizontal gaze nystagmus.” His testimony stands in stark contrast to the FDA-approved product insert (separating adverse events into two distinct and clear categories), the peer-reviewed PubMed literature, wherein at least fourteen articles discuss the use of this drug for therapeutic treatment of various types of pathological nystagmus, as well as at least one study specifically addressing impaired driving that found no correlation between HGN and Klonopin. All of these studies were completed and published before the lab analyst took the stand and provided the testimony that led to my convictions. To bolster his credibility and qualifications he offered a nonsensical explanation that sounded sort of technical nonetheless by stating that the “chlorine atom makes it so that liquid-liquid extraction is incapable of pulling [Klonopin] out of the blood.”* Having taken Organic Chemistry myself and having grown up with a father who co-founded a clinical laboratory in the Northwest, I was, to mildly understate, shocked to see these words come out of a lab worker’s mouth, when I reviewed the tapes.
If I get nothing else across in this post, I would like to convey some key concepts as follows. Forget CSI. Just because someone calls him or herself an ‘expert,’ a ‘chemist’ or an ‘analyst’ does not mean that they are. A white coat is meaningless. Crime labs are most often another police department and nothing more. Lab analysts are techs working for the prosecution and if they have to misrepresent an unambiguous exculpatory result as somehow inculpatory, they will. If they have to make up science, they will, just to get a conviction at all costs. With nothing more than a bachelor’s degree at most, crime lab analysts can and will misrepresent themselves and testify as clinical ‘experts,’ even if, as in my case, they have never seen or tested for the drug in question. Crime labs receive millions of dollars from the government (Paul Coverdell grants) with little or no oversight or accountability. When you give your blood in accordance with your state statutes, please, please, do not ever assume that you will be ‘cleared’ if the results come back negative. It is absolutely essential that you get extra tubes of blood drawn and sent to a competent clinical laboratory.
For further reading on this issue, please visit this University of Virginia Law Review article:
*During jury selection (voir dire) in my case, the prosecutor excused a prospective juror who was a chemical engineer because the prosecutor did not want someone with knowledge of chemistry to serve on my jury.