This weekend we told you about the man who was arrested and strip-searched over flecks of glaze from a Krispy Kere doughnut because a police field drug test that turned false positive for the presence of meth. As we mentioned, the field drug tests that cops can use as evidence to arrest you cannot be admitted as evidence in court to convict you. Instead, the evidence collected by police must then be sent to a state or county crime lab, where more sophisticated tests can be used to detect drugs.
Crime procedural shows like C.S.I. have led the public to believe that forensic science is an unimpeachable tool for proving guilt in court. But forensic science is only as reliable as the people that are conducting it. Unfortunately for well over 50,000 suspects over the past decade, technicians in crime labs have been implicated in falsely convicting innocent people not just for drugs, but for rape and murder as well.
Faking Test Results And Planting Drugs
Some of the worst cases of crime lab shenanigans involve forensic lab technicians who don’t actually run the tests on the evidence suspected to be illegal drugs, but simply certify the evidence as illegal drugs by looking at it. This practice is called “dry labbing”. Even worse are the cases where techs are planting illegal drugs into evidence that weren’t there or substituting legal drugs into evidence to replace illegal drugs they have stolen.
Massachusetts – 34,000+ Drug Cases Affected by Dry Labbing
Annie Dookhan was a former state crime lab analyst who was sentenced to three-to-five years in prison in 2013 for obstruction of justice, tampering with evidence, perjury, falsification of academic records.
Ms. Dookhan had been dry labbing up to 500 evidence samples per month, from 2009 through 2012. In court, Ms. Dookhan admitted to add cocaine to some samples that did not have cocaine in them.
In January, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court refused to overturn en masse over 20,000 convictions directly related to Ms. Dookhan’s mishandling of evidence. Instead, the court has adopted a procedure to determine whether each individual case should be retried or dismissed.
New Jersey – About 14,800 Drug Cases Affected by Dry Labbing
Kamalkant Shah was a lab tech for the New Jersey State Police who was also “dry labbing” his test results, affecting criminal cases on which he worked from 2005 to 2016.
Elie Honig, director of the Division of Criminal Justice, told county prosecutors that, “Mr. Shah was observed in one case spending insufficient time analyzing a substance to determine if it was marijuana and recording an anticipated result without properly conducting the analysis.”
Mr. Shah had been paid a salary of $101,039 and had been working as a forensic scientist for 27 years. Judge Edward A. Jerejian, appointed by the New Jersey Supreme Court to review the scandal, said that Mr. Shah’s conduct may have impacted about 14,800 cases.
Why the Light Sentences For Drug Lab Crimes?
The Massachusetts lab tech, Annie Dookhan, is already out of prison. The Oregon lab tech, Nika Larsen, will be released from prison in 2020 or sooner. The New Jersey lab tech, Kamalkant Shah, has yet to be tried, but we fear he’d receive a similarly-light three-year sentence if convicted. The California lab tech never saw a day in prison.
For these crime lab techs to receive three-year sentences or less is shocking to us. In New Jersey, a person convicted of possession with intent to distribute less than an ounce marijuana can face 1.5 years in prison and a $25,000 fine. Thus, if Mr. Shah’s dry labbing helped to convict even two people for selling personal-use amounts of marijuana, they will do as much time combined as Mr. Shah might.
In Massachusetts, cocaine is a Class B drug which carries the threat of a year in jail and a $1,000 fine, first offense, and twice that for subsequent offenses. Thus, three people convicted of possessing the cocaine that Ms. Dookhan added to some clean samples could do as much time combined as she did.
Drug Stealing and Trafficking Taint Forensic Science As Well
Sometimes evidence at police crime labs is corrupted by the forensic scientists stealing, using, or trafficking in drugs. Even though they may have accurately tested samples in their work, their corruption breaks the chain-of-evidence rules necessary to ensure fair and honest reporting of forensic testing, leading to hundreds of drug cases being re-tried or dismissed.
California – 700 Drug Cases Affected by Cocaine Thefts, 25 Cases Already Dropped
Deborah Madden was a lab tech for the San Francisco Police Department for 29 years who was convicted of stealing cocaine from the lab in 2009. The State of California declined to press charges against her, citing lack of evidence, but the federal government convicted her for cocaine possession and handed her a sentence of one year of house arrest and a $5,000 fine. Her thefts impacted around 700 cases and have resulted in at least 25 drug cases being dropped.
Maryland – Crime Scene Technician Busted For Heroin Trafficking
Tamika Jones was a technician in Baltimore whose job it was to process crime scenes, such as taking photographs and collecting fingerprints. She has been arrested on felony drug and gun charges after police, acting on a tip, raided her home and found two handguns, $100,000 in cash, and a capsule-producing machine with capsules containing suspected heroin. While Ms. Jones had no access to the crime lab or evidence locker, the state is now reviewing all of the criminal cases on which she had worked.
Oregon – About 2,500 Drug Cases Affected by Pill-Stealing
Nika Larsen was a lab tech for the Oregon State Police from 2007 to who stole more than 700 doses of morphine, hydrocodone, diazepam, methamphetamine (in pill form), tramadol and methadone. Sometimes, she would replace the narcotics she was stealing from more than fifty separate cases with over-the-counter pills.
In December, Ms. Larsen was convicted and sentenced to thirty-six months in federal prison for obtaining controlled substances by misrepresentation, fraud and deception. Her crimes affected at least 2,500 cases statewide.
Florida – About 2,600 Drug Cases Affected by Pill-Stealing
Joseph Graves was a lab tech for the Florida State Police from 2006 to 2014 who stole approximately 5,000 doses of opiates and benzodiazepenes, sometimes swapping in over-the-counter pills to hide the thefts.
In September, Mr. Graves was convicted and sentenced to fifteen years in prison. Mr. Graves worked on at least 2,600 cases statewide, stole evidence in about 90 of those cases, and that led to some of the cases being dropped or charges reduced.
Problems with DNA, Hair, and Semen Testing, Too
It’s not just the testing of drugs that has run afoul of scandal-plagued crime labs. In some cases, inaccurate testing of DNA, semen, and hair samples have led to hundreds of criminal convictions, including at least 32 death penalty cases.
- Santa Clara County, California – Two-to-five dozen sexual assault cases affected by “p30” test for semen that gives false positives, a test Contra Costa and Los Angeles counties stopped using over a dozen years ago due to its unreliability.
- Orange County, California – Crime lab scientist Mary Hong gives conflicting testimony in two different murder convictions about the reliability of semen evidence.
- Columbus, Ohio – Possibly hundreds of convictions are in jeopardy as G. Michelle Yezzo, a 32-year veteran of the state crime lab, is found to have unfairly and haphazardly reviewed evidence in a method favorable to prosecutors. One convicted man has already been freed and another who faced execution is challenging his case.
- Travis County, Texas – About 2,200 convictions are questioned because the crime lab in Austin ignored the federal National Institute on Standards and Technology recommendations to modernize its DNA testing procedures.
- New York City – Over 800 rape cases were hampered by crime lab techs who had been sloppy with their procedures, leading to false negative reports that allowed rape suspects in at least 26 cases to avoid investigation.
- Broward County, Florida – About 2,000 cases are impacted by the crime lab’s sloppy interpretation of DNA analysis.
- FBI – 257 cases are identified since the 1980s where crime lab techs overstated the reliability of hair-match evidence that was used to convict suspects of crimes. 32 of those cases are death penalty cases and 14 of those convicts have died or been executed.
Most crime labs follow strict chain-of-evidence procedures and most forensic scientists are honorable people. But as these cases show, we should not simply accept that forensic science produces unimpeachable evidence so long as forensic scientists are still flawed humans.