“Unlimited power is apt to corrupt the minds of those who possess it; and this I know, my lords: that where law ends, tyranny begins.” William Pitt
One person’s actions affected 24,000 guilty convictions. Annie Dookhan lied–for years. She “tested” samples in her crime lab without checking the samples out of the evidence lockers; she added illegal substances to samples to ensure defendants would be found guilty; and she misidentified samples that may have been legal as illegal. Now, the state of Massachusetts faces a quandary: how do we review 24,000 convictions? How do we retest 24,000 samples that may or may not have been destroyed because the case was closed? How do we give people years of their lives back that they spent in prison? How do we explain to our taxpayers that they paid someone to do a job she didn’t do, then paid to have trials, then paid to keep people in prison, and now they have to pay even more to re-do everything?
Our nation is facing so many challenges right now, including a failed war on drugs, increasing violent crime rates, and a frightening lack of personal integrity. We live in a world where we can no longer trust each other. Prosecutors intentionally violate people’s rights. Police extort and pit criminals against each other. And yes, defense attorneys that lie to the court. When a single person holds so much power, there must be better checks and balances. We need to demand higher standards. No one wants crimes to go unpunished, but we are at a tipping point where we need to start taking an honest look at our system. Police departments often have ticket or arrest quotas that officers are supposed to meet in order to be deemed doing good jobs, while crime labs get payment when their work brings about convictions. When we award others for putting people behind bars instead of celebrating justice, however that result may appear, we’ve lost our way.
This is where defense attorneys come into play. Our job is to defend our clients and to not blindly trust the evidence we’re given. There are many honest officers, crime lab employees, and prosecutors, but there are some that aren’t. In forensic science, we are tasked with questioning and investigating why a scientist can do five times the work of any other person in her lab and to review the smaller details like chain of custody forms and blood draw paperwork. Do people “get off” in this process? That is certainly possible. But in our opinion, it is more important to fight for our system’s integrity—to prevent the end of the rule of law—and to make sure that we’re not rewarding those in power who break the rules. Love us or hate us, the system only works if everyone is fulfilling their ethical obligations. And if you or a loved one end up in this legal minefield, we know you’ll want someone like us on your side.