When it comes to convicting accused criminals, we tend to think of scientific evidence as the gold standard. Witnesses can get things wrong, memories can fail, but by God a DNA match is a DNA match, right?
Not really. The science is only as trustworthy as the scientist doing it. Most recent case in point: Massachusetts state chemist Annie Dookhan, who was sent to prison on Friday for making up and/or faking results on thousands of drug tests taken from criminal suspects. As the New York Times sums up: “Prosecutors say Ms. Dookhan declared drug samples positive that she had not bothered to test, tampered with evidence, forged signatures and lied about her credentials to enhance her standing in court as an expert witness. In all, her actions may have tainted more than 40,000 drug samples involving thousands of defendants.”
At least 11 prisoners have been released in Texas in recent months because a state crime lab worker was caught falsifying test results.
As a result, said the judge who sentenced Dookhan to three to five years in prison, “Innocent persons were incarcerated.... Guilty persons have been released to further endanger the public, millions and millions of public dollars are being expended to deal with the chaos Ms. Dookhan created, and the integrity of the criminal justice system has been shaken to the core.” More than 300 people convicted partly thanks to Dookhan’s work have since been released.
Thing is, this kind of thing happens all the time. At least 11 prisoners have been released in Texas in recent months because a state crime lab worker was caught falsifying test results. Faked evidence and shoddy tests have been discovered again and again at the Houston Police Department’s crime lab. Just last week, police in Orange County, California, admitted they may have gotten blood-alcohol test results wrong in some 2,200 DUI cases. PrisonLegalNews.org has a long, long list of other examples. Something to keep in mind next time you're watching CSI.