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Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Sonja Farak and Annie Dookhan: Crime Lab Rogues

     Last August, authorities in Massachusetts shut down the state crime lab in Jamaica Plain. A month later, state police officers arrested Annie Dookhan on charges related to the forensic chemist's deliberate mishandling of drug evidence, and her failure to follow lab testing protocols. During her tenure at the Jamaica Plain lab, Dookhan had handled more than 50,000 drug samples involving some 34,000 defendants. Now all of these cases are in jeopardy.

     On January 20, 2013, Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley announced that state police officers had arrested forensic chemist Sonja Farak. The 35-year-old had been a drug analyst at the state lab in Amherst. The officers arrested Farak at her home in Northhampton on charges she had stolen cocaine and heroin from evidence she had certified. The forensic chemist had replaced the stolen contraband with counterfeit substances. Farak, a state chemist since 2002, was held on $75,000 bail pending her arraignment.

     Two weeks before Farak's arrest, federal inspectors had given the Amherst lab a clean bill of health. After the closing of the Jamaica Plain and Amherst facilities, police and prosecutors in Massachusetts are left with the crime lab in Sudbury, the only laboratory still open in the state.

     In 2012, crime laboratory auditors reported serious quality control problems in the Michigan state system as well as in labs in St. Paul, Minnesota, Houston, Texas, Raleigh, North Carolina, Hartford, Connecticut, Los Angeles and New York City. Over the past ten years, dozens of crime labs across the country lost their accreditation or were temporarily closed. These crime lab failures represent a serious breakdown in American forensic science.

     While there has been some budget cutting that affects street policing, SWAT operations, anti-terrorism programs, and drug enforcement, crime labs have suffered the most from economic austerity. The lack of adequate crime lab funding has created personnel shortages, diminished training, physical plant deterioration, and attenuated administrative oversight.

     The crime lab scandals in Massachusetts illustrate how much damage a couple of rogue forensic practitioners can inflict on a criminal justice system overwhelmed by the government's massive war on drugs.  

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