The Forensics Train Keeps on Wrecking

We’ve posted previous blogs discussing the state of forensic labs across the country, and one common refrain seems to be that many crime labs are unable to hire well-qualified analysts and forensic scientists due to budget constraints. This inability is consistent and is perpetuated by a failure to conduct proper testing, interviews, and background checks prior to hiring these chemists. The result? Analyst errors, a lack of scientific reliability, and questionable convictions.

Between the years of 2004 and 2013, Massachusetts analyst Sonja Farak sucker-punched the justice system in two ways: by personally using the drugs that came into her lab and then issuing reports used in thousands of defendants’ cases. She allegedly began sampling the drugs she was supposed to test so she could “get things done and not procrastinate,” later revealed through private files from her therapist. Farak covered her tracks by swapping the drugs with counterfeit samples. She was charged and pleaded guilty to tampering with evidence and stealing cocaine from the lab; yet, she was sentenced to a mere 18 months in prison.

Although an initial investigation touted Farak’s criminal activity to have started in 2012, evidence demonstrates that it began long before that. Of the 29,000 samples she tested during her 9-year career, more than 10,000 have likely been affected by her actions. According to Massachusetts Criminal Defense attorney, Josh Lee, her conduct could have had serious repercussions for some defendants: “Changing weights changes crimes and can, for example, elevate something from drug possession to drug trafficking.”

You know how we say, “history repeats itself”? Well, it seems that recent forensic laboratory history is more of a train wreck, with more and more cars joining in on the crash.

Annie Dookhan is perhaps the most infamous of these analysts. In 2011, Dookhan repeatedly lied about having a Master’s education and “tested” almost twice as many samples as her colleagues, which resulted in an investigation of her work. Dookhan was found guilty and sentenced to 3-5 years in prison in 2013 for falsifying information affecting nearly 35,000 drug cases. Over 300 convicted inmates were released as a result of her fraudulent activity.

Both Dookhan and Farak worked for crime labs in Massachusetts. Although their actions are at more of an extreme, they certainly do not appear to be isolated. These repeated problems and others like them have led the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) to establish a forensics board to determine acceptable standards for crime labs. State by state, there seem to be varying standards used to analyze forensic data without controls mandated by the scientific community, unwittingly permitting many more errors than should ever be acceptable. If we are allowing standards to change from state to state—or even from lab to lab—then this is not acceptable science.  The NAS has published its concerns associated with crime labs, including but not limited to: lab operation under law enforcement agencies (making labs more susceptible to produce results in favor of the prosecution), underfunded and understaffed labs contributing to back logs, and perhaps the number one problem, lack of meaningful accreditation in smaller labs by appropriate agencies, such as the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors/Laboratory Accreditation Board (ASCLD/LAB).

Without addressing these concerns, don’t be surprised when more problems arise. Peter Neufeld, co-founder of the Innocence Project, rightly notes: “Let’s start by putting forensic science on the scientific track.”