Crime Lab Fraud

This post is by Crane-Station

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:

http://virginialawreview.org/content/pdfs/95/1.pdf

*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.

23 Responses to Crime Lab Fraud

  1. Crane-Station….What an absolute nightmare!!! How do you ever get over the anger from such injustice? How can these people treat other people’s lives with such disregard? I have absolutely NO trust in the (in)justice system after what my son went through. Long story short……they withheld evidence in his case…but that’s a story for another time.
    Thank you for your very informative, yet heart-breaking story. You have the support of all of the folks on this blog.

  2. Malisha says:

    Grahase, another thing.

    It is not true that every misdeed must be punished. But every misdeed in a public agency or by an officer of the court or by an official of some sort whose word is the currency of this country’s justice system MUST BE PUNISHED. VERY STRICTLY!

    That means from the file clerks who do little favors to the judges who “decide” elections. MISDEEDS that are the purchase of the nation’s judicial and legislative and executive systems MUST BE IDENTIFIED AND PUNISHED.

    So we’re on the way to Hell already because the center won’t hold.

  3. Two sides to a story says:

    Good points, grahase.

  4. grahase says:

    Big problem – we trust. We trust our professionals – the doctors, the plumbers, the dentists, on and on. WE TRUST. I am asking myself now – why do we trust. Because we believe professionals will always do the right thing. We don’t generally trust strangers. Yet, we will walk into an accountants office, hand over every shred of paperwork we need to set up an account, for example. We will trust this stranger to handle our money. We don’t know this person.We don’t live in small towns any more where everybody knows everybody. We live in a system of trust and we believe in the honour system. Trouble is, this system has broken down. It has been bastardized. Now you think checking the checkers will solve things and it doesn’t. You think laws for every little thing will be a preventative measure and it isn’t.

    It is all a game. Some know the rules and do fine. Some know the rules and take advantage to their own benefit. Some break the rules and some won’t play at all.

    In this society, the 1% make the rules of the game to their own benefit and the rest is merely used to keep the masses under control.

    Gone is the trust and reliability – there are just some people who can not connect with others and do not care what the consequences of their actions will do to others.

  5. racerrodig says:

    Professor, I’m sorry this happened…. Anytime there is an expert in a technical field, there is always the chance to manipulate / misinterpret or falsify a report. They can eliminate tests and still provide a fraudulent report.

  6. rachael says:

    After the lab’s shutdown, police asked a lab supervisor why Dookhan would take samples from an evidence room without logging them out. Elizabeth O’Brien told investigators that Dookhan was going through personal problems that included a miscarriage in 2009.

    “Annie was going through personal problems, then court, and Melendez-Diaz was tough at first on her. In 2009 she had a miscarriage and other personal problems. Perhaps she was trying to be important, by being the `go-to person,’ ” O’Brien told state police.

    Dookhan said she just wanted to get the work done and never meant to hurt anyone.

    “I screwed up big-time,” she is quoted as saying in a state police report. “I messed up bad; it’s my fault. I don’t want the lab to get in trouble.”

    http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-504083_162-57522579-504083/annie-dookhan-chemist-at-mass-crime-lab-arrested-for-allegedly-mishandling-over-60000-samples/

    For God’s sake, we ALL have personal problems, but how she did this and got away with it for so long, I’ll never know. What she did to the lives of others and all the time it took and will take to make up for her mistakes is more than 20 years worth. Some people will never be able to fully recover.

    I’m sorry this sort of thing happened to you. There is no excuse for this.

  7. 2dogsonly says:

    We have an adversarial system but middle class, read white, don’t realize this. If we are arrested but know we are innocent, we think everything will be fine . This is not the case. The state means to win at all costs and even a highly paid attorney only wants to plead out to move to their next client. Your own attorney has real financial incentive to move your case to completion. Very few criminal attorneys have ever been in a courtroom.

    This happened to me..from a upper class family. Hired former Bar President. Prosecution knew 3 mths after arresting me, his information was inaccurate. I live in Fl. And since we have sunshine, I obtained my entire file after case was dismissed. My own attorney said he didn’t believe prosecution knew this but it was in prosecution’s emails. I had to fight my own attorney not to plead my case. My own lawyer was furious, screaming, bullying until finally I asked him if he had never had an innocent client.

    My case was finally dismissed …this was before the Internet had such great information available. And that is what you must do if you are ever arrested. Use this resource to research your own attorney , and every single pertinent issue.

    Everyone knows having to use a public defender is not going to produce a result they wish unless they are lucky to draw a Pat McGuiness or Ann ( forget her last name) but my plea is do not give your case and your brains to your private attorney even a ” go to who wealthy people hire guy”.

    Crane, you went through such hell and yet you were an attorney? How did this happen. I am so sorry

    • rachael says:

      @2dogsonly – you are so right. My son got into the middle of what basically wa a cat fight and got charged with something horrible and unimaginable that would have ruined his life. He was a minor, they wanted to charge him as an adult. I checked with a “wealthy people hire guy,” and he wanted $50,000 up front and would not plea out. I don’t have that kind of money and he couldn’t absolutely guarantee that my son would be clearned for $50,000. I was a single mom, did not own a home or anything to get that kind of money. I had a legal benefit from my work where I could get a discount on legal fees and the lawyer talked to through that benefit wanted even MORE.

      In the end, I had no choice but to trust a public defender, who was good. I mean he made sure that if it went to trial, my son would be tried as a juvenile, but in the end, he did take a plea. They told my son it was no big deal because they plead it down to practically nothing (some public service and probation for 6 months) and since he was young, blah, blah, blah, and he was scared enough and so tired of it all he just took the plea.

      It made his life difficult for a time as far as getting a job and housing, which he needed because his (now) wife had a baby on the way, but they managed and got through it, but it was difficult. I really hope it is now in the past but you never know when stuff will come up and bite you in the butt.

      But you are right, they couldn’t just drop it because the state just has to get something out of it I guess.

      • Two sides to a story says:

        I’ve seen this happen to far too many kids AND adults and it stinks to high heaven . . . I “rage against the machine” on an almost daily basis now . . .

  8. Malisha says:

    Wow, Crane Station, I did not know about this! I believe every word you said. The amount of government corruption that goes into the routine day-to-day workings of every court in every county in every state of the Union is just staggering. And the reason is always the same: one official lies and either destroys, creates or distorts evidence to protect another who has done something else that is on the agenda of either him or herself or some third person. It is a giant fraud.

    This giant fraud is protected by one of the biggest lies in the history of the world: that the system has protections built into it and that it will always fairly and impartially investigate itself so if you are a persistent complainer or if you insist that something was done wrong or corruptly, YOU ARE EVIL, CRAZY OR BOTH. You are a conspiracy theorist and you should be strictly controlled, driven out of the system, neutralized, or just plain tortured until you STFU.

    That’s our system. People like this Annie Dookhan actually run it. The question in my mind is how many people knocked themselves out trying to protest the wrongful convictions she facilitated all along; how many of them lost their positions in their own families as folks turned against them claiming, “I just can’t go along with all this paranoia and all these lies” trusting some malevolent stranger’s faked-up tests rather than their own family member? How many lives were completely in ruins thanks to her inhuman perfidy? These numbers will not only never be known, nobody who has real power actually gives a damn. Nobody is tearing his or her hair out over this, you can be sure. They are making the right moves for the camera and they are saying “tsk tsk” and then it’s business as usual and some insurance company that has robbed people for 100 years will negotiate the claims down to minimum and pay off a fraction of them after all the dust settles.

    And someone who goes to bed tonight chewing on their own rage tonight will wake up tomorrow morning with their stomach lining eaten up from the bile and that’s the true result of all this fraud.

    Our court system is a fake and a fraud.
    All it makes for is theater.
    And I prefer Checkov anyway.

    My compliments to you, Crane Station, for remaining strong, intelligent, humane, and artistic. ❗

    • Lonnie Starr says:

      In light of these revelations we need the Justice department to start going around the nation and run “stings”. Select trusted police or other officials and send samples out to the authorized labs the courts rely upon. See where the false positives are coming from and shut them down.

      Of course, realize that it’s a massive project, and there needs to be special arrangements in place to handle the fallout of the dramatic results, that are going to release hardened criminals back into society, after honest police have risked their lives to put them away.
      Tragic as it may sound, there has to be some reasonable limits to liability in place, and probably a special court part to handle the exhonorations sure to ensue, and separate them from the cases where the lab work wasn’t the critical evidence. I guess some new laws can be written to limit these limitations to cases where lab work was the cause.

      Beyond that, I think that the Justice department should take over licensing, certifying and auditing crime labs. Another massive undertaking, but failing that, the faith in the law enforcement system will be severely diminished. So, in any event, Washington DC must move fast on this most critical issue. People expect scientists to be impartial, so crime labs need to be accountable to someone other than the government agencies they serve. They should not be required to compete for work from LE sources. There should be a routine sequence for selecting between labs when there are more than one serving an area. So that the quantity of work a lab gets is not dependent on them finding more positives than the other labs.

      • bettykath says:

        Good suggestions. A licensing program with strict requirements and enforcements is a good idea that has a small chance of success. A program that looks at results retroactively that has the potential of releasing thousands of prisoners has no chance at all due to lobbying by for-profit prisons that would lose income and the various labs and enforcement systems that would end up dealing with the mess. And, in case you have forgotten, the FBI has been known to jigger a case or two or more.

        • Lonnie Starr says:

          Agreed, but even if they engaged an effort that was largely fake and provided lots of cover, it would be better than no effort at all. I can appreciate them taking the trouble “for cause” of trying to avoid the massive upheavals that cleaning up the system, in a straight forward way, would do. But I’m sure they can fake a good effort that would scare most labs into straightening up and flying right, without even having to grab hold of them by the scruff of the neck.

          Besides, I wouldn’t want such an effort to be so carelessly managed that dangerous people were released to endanger innocent lives yet again. So, the phonied up effort (with real teeth kept behind the scenes) is what we’d have to settle for. But that’s still no excuse for them not to get started and get the job done. Civilized societies have had to tolerate worse than a legitimate effort to clean up a terrible situation in reality, while using fake imagery and such to prevent wider spread damage.

          I’m sure they already know how to keep society fooled while they get the job done.

  9. grahase says:

    We rely upon the integrity of those who analyze evidence in cases where strong forensics are necessary to convict or not. We have confidence in those who are presenting the results of the analysis as fact. When I heard about this case, I became sick to my stomach to imagine just how many peoples lives have been affected by this fraud. One just assumes the authorities would be ensuring all was right and proper. Obviously, this is not the case.

    Exactly who can you trust. If someone is wrongly convicted or wrongly set free, there is no justice, is there.

    So, in reality, there is a judicial system for the rich and another judicial system for regular folk. It costs money to have everything tested independently and then learn the results are contradictory only serves to complicate matters. A jury not understanding the system trust the white coats. Who would ever, ever imagine that something like this happens.

    Twenty years in prison is not enough. Witness testimony is not concrete fact. We have come to rely upon forensics to guide us with concrete fact. If a person is executed because of the forensics, the white coat should be prosecuted to the extent that they contributed to a person losing their life. This may have been a possibility. So, the penalty should be life. If a person is convicted and sentenced to life in prison because of forensic evidence, this person has lost their life, in essence. How many lives are ruined (again, in essence, lost their lives) because of this type of fraud.

    In my opinion, this fraud deserves nothing less than life in prison.

    I can not imagine being in your position and feeling helpless and caught up in the complicated legal system. Knowing the truth, and not being able to do anything about what is happening to you. I am just a regular person who has always trusted that the system is working. Actually, how ignorant we are unless we are the ones involved.

  10. Brown says:

    Following,
    Thank you for sharing your story.

  11. roderick2012 says:

    How will O’Mara work this disaster into his defense of George.

    I guess only time will tell

  12. Xena says:

    Crane-Station, each time I read what happened to you, my heart hurts. In agreement with Two sides, I took thank you for remaining strong and sharing your story.

  13. Two sides to a story says:

    Crane Station – bless your heart. The state was out to convict and didn’t care about ruining an innocent life. Frightening and so many people don’t realize how easily this can happen to them. Thank you for remaining strong and telling your story.

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