I recently finished watching “How to Fix a Drug Scandal” on Netflix, a documentary that exposes crime labs. The fact you are reading this blog means the program will likely interest you and inflame you. I recommend you watch it.
Don’t read any further, if you plan to watch it. Watch it, instead, then come back and read this.
It’s Not About Fixing Anything
“How to Perpetuate a Drug Scandal” is a much more appropriate and accurate title.
The four-part series reviews the misdeeds of two crime lab drug analysts. Their behavior invalidated lab results in tens of thousands of drug cases. Fraud on a massive scale came to light due to the great diligence, perseverance, and courage of some terrific defense lawyers.
Two Labs, Two Scandals, Same State
There were two major scandals from Massachusetts described in the program. Producers focused more on long-troubled Sonja Farak’s drug addiction, which led to chaotic and reckless behavior. I suppose it’s more dramatic to go down the rabbit hole of addiction. I would have preferred to put the bigger spotlight on Annie Dookhan. She actually got away with pretending to do her job for years by faking lab results tens of thousands of times. Her story plainly demonstrates how even literally making plainly false claims worked in law enforcement and courts for years.
Farak’s behavior over the course of years was downright shocking. Farak consumed mass quantities of the very drugs she was supposed to test. Her co-workers knew something was desperately wrong for years. None of her co-workers did anything to change it. Oversight and management were practically non-existent.
Officials: Nothing To See Here
What is an appropriate response to a scandal of this nature and scale? A thorough and intense investigation seems the easy answer. Massachusetts messed up that, too. Government officials did what they normally do, deny and/or minimize the problem, then declare it fixed without making real change.
The state effectively whitewashed the problem as simply two bad actors within the lab. That response was nonsensical and a denial of reality. There was no deep dive into how these scandals could possibly have happened at all, much less go on for years undetected. Officials did find it appropriate to criticize a determined criminal defense lawyer named Luke Ryan. Yes, you read that right, as if the lawyer could be blameworthy.
It got worse. Prosecutors engaged in misconduct to further the sham and hide the truth. It is such a shameful series of events the state Supreme Judicial Court had to tell the prosecutors to do a real investigation. If it didn’t happen, the judges might start dismissing cases en masse. The resulting investigation was better than the government’s first “cursory” attempt, but still didn’t address the problem, much less fix it.
Fallout from the scandals Massachusetts continues to this day. A few keep trying.
It’s Not Just About One State
Crime labs all over the country have shoddy procedures. Most law enforcement officials nationwide don’t do the right thing when faced with drug scandals. Even the vaunted “gold standard” FBI has been exposed for longstanding fraud. It’s a top to bottom problem in this country, and it remains unaddressed.
One Reform is Essential
The only solution, in my opinion, is to remove any connection between labs and law enforcement. Investigations into scandals such as this normally have the same, predictable finding of “lone wolf” types of problem, rather than the core problems they truly are. This happens because law enforcement agencies are sometimes investigating themselves or institutions they view as allies. They do not want to harm the people and agencies they depend upon to prosecute cases. Criticism, especially from criminal defense lawyers, is seen as baseless, regardless of the facts.
Crime labs will continue to have scandals, both intentional and systemic. This will continue because they are considered and consider themselves law enforcement adjuncts, instead of scientists. Crime lab independence from law enforcement should be the primary reform in every crime lab. Without such independence, crime lab will always be compromised.
Image courtesy of Netflix.