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How Can America Fix Its Crime Labs?

Scandals have plagued crime labs across the country. What can be done to prevent the next one?

By Kate Wheeling


(Photo: Phil Walter/Getty Images)

In 2013, Sonja Farak, a chemist at an Amherst state lab in Massachusetts, was arrested for tampering with evidence. Farak’s case made headlines in part for its salaciousness: She was using lab samples to fuel her own drug habit for at least eight years. At its worst, her addiction impelled the chemist to cook crack inside the state-run lab, and smoke up to a dozen times a day on the job, the Boston Heraldreports.

Convicted in 2014, she has already served her 18-month sentence. But, according to the Herald, a newly released state investigation has found that Farak’s misconduct may have affected thousands more cases than anyone realized.

How does a drug addict steal from a state-run lab for nearly a decade without anyone noticing? The Farak scandal is unusual, but it is not unique. The Massachusetts District Attorney’s office is still recovering from the case of Annie Dookhan — a chemist currently in jail for tampering with evidence in drug cases. Dookhan handled samples for more than 40,000 cases, and as many as 20,000 convictions may have resulted from her work, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

And it’s not just Massachusetts. Crime lab technicians in Montana and California have been accused of stealing pills and cocaine from evidence. And in Houston, Jonathan Salvador, a Department of Public Safety crime lab employee, was let go for fabricating drug tests, and a slew of guilty verdicts were overturned as district attorneys across 30 counties began re-evaluating the evidence in the nearly 5,000 cases Salvador had worked on.

The lack of oversight in crime labs, and the pressure to do more with less creates an environment that allows misconduct like Farak’s to go unnoticed.

A 2009 report from the National Academy of Sciences found that, in addition to problems with the accuracy of the forensic sciences themselves, many forensic labs across the country are underfunded and overworked, leading to case backlogs and increasing the risk of errors — like the 400,000 rape kits in evidence rooms across the country dating back to the 1980s that have yet to be processed for lack of resources, many of which could contain enough evidence to convict rapists. The lack of oversight in crime labs, and the pressure to do more with less (funding, employees, etc.) creates an environment that allows misconduct like Farak’s and Dookhan’s to go unnoticed. And when these scandals are brought to light, so too are the extensive collateral consequences of forensic misconduct.

A 2013 Boston Globeinvestigation of the Dookhan scandal found that, as judges released inmates whose cases had been potentially mishandled by the chemist, crime in and around Boston began to increase:

One year after the public first learned about the alleged misdeeds of Annie Dookhan, the Globe review of court records shows that more than 600 so-called Dookhan defendants have had convictions against them erased or temporarily set aside, or they’ve been released on bail pending a new trial. Of those, at least 83 have been re-arrested — about 13 percent of the total — and 16 have been arrested more than once for crimes ranging from possessing a pound of cocaine to vandalizing cars outside a Hyannis pub.

That’s all to say nothing of the innocent people Dookhan may have helped to put behind bars. Drug convictions can affect employment and housing opportunities, immigration status, even the right to vote or drive.

Rigorous background checks for all prospective crime lab personnel may have been enough to prevent cases like Dookhan’s, who lied about her credentials. Periodic background checks and drug tests might prevent cases like Farak’s.

The Department of Justice announced last year that it would only use evidence that comes from accredited labs — an endorsement that laboratories are operating with a set of best practices and standards. But accreditation is not a panacea. As Frontlinereported:

The new policy, announced by Deputy Attorney General Sally Q. Yates at a meeting of the National Commission on Forensic Sciences, is unlikely to precipitate any immediate or universal overhaul of the nation’s crime labs. It will only directly affect labs contracted by the DOJ that aren’t already accredited — and it will only begin doing so in 2020. Furthermore, the new policy seemingly has a built-in loophole: Prosecutors are required to use accredited labs “when practicable,” a phrase Yates told the commission was not meant to be used loosely, but only when using those labs would cause great delay or excessive cost.

In addition, accredited labs are not immune to high-profile scandals. So what is the solution?

It’s nearly impossible to eliminate misconduct entirely, but, for starters, the justice system could stop encouraging it. A 2013 study in the journal Criminal Justice Ethics reported that many crime labs receive funding explicitly from convictions. “In at least 14 states, state law requires that public crime labs be funded in part through court-assessed fees payable by the defendant upon conviction,” the authors write. “In effect, then, the crime lab gets a kind of bonus for each conviction.”

Such policies can incentivize convictions for lab technicians, without any regard for whether they’re convicting the right person — an imbalance that could lead to false convictions. This is especially true when technicians are provided with case details by police and prosecutors — a common occurrence, Mark Joseph Stern writes at Slate:

A startling number of forensics analysts are told by prosecutors what they think the result of any given test will be. This isn’t mere prosecutorial mischief; analysts often ask for as much information about the case as possible — including the identity of the suspect — claiming it helps them know what to look for. Even the most upright analyst is liable to be subconsciously swayed when she already has a conclusion in mind. Yet few forensics labs follow the typical blind experiment model to eliminate bias. Instead, they reenact a small-scale version of Inception, in which analysts are unconsciously convinced of their conclusion before their experiment even begins.

The damage done by these lab scandals is exacerbated by the public’s inflated trust in forensic science in the courtroom, thanks in large part to popular crime lab procedurals on television today like NCIS. There is no official estimate yet on the number of cases that Farak may have tainted, but it could be as many as 10,000, the Boston Globe reports. The district attorneys’ office must now begin the hard work of identifying and re-evaluating each individual case.