Criminal procedure is a cornerstone of the American criminal justice system. To prove a criminal case at trial, prosecutors must have evidence against a defendant. Prosecutors must prove, based on that evidence, that the defendant committed the crime beyond a reasonable doubt. But what happens when the evidence prosecutors have used in tens of thousands of cases to convict defendants turns out to be tainted? This is a question Massachusetts now must wrestle with after the consequences of a massive evidence tampering scandal are felt even a year after its discovery.
Slate.com reports on the story that impacts every aspect of the Massachusetts criminal justice system. Last year a former state crime lab chemist named Annie Dookhan was discovered to have systematically tampered and mishandled evidence in thousands of cases over a nine-year time period. Ms. Dookhan’s position in the lab was to analyze samples to determine whether illicit drugs were present for drug-related criminal cases. Investigators still do not know why Ms. Dookhan tampered with the evidence. Some commentators point fingers at an overburdened system, where cases are routinely expedited at the expense of precision and accuracy. Whatever the reason, ultimately hundreds of prisoners were freed following the discovery of Ms. Dookhan’s work. In addition, Massachusetts dismissed or declined to prosecute over 1,000 other criminal cases in which evidence had been handled by Ms. Dookhan. In total, Ms. Dookhan tampered with evidence related to the cases of over 40,000 people.
Now a year later, Massachusetts is seeing an interesting pattern in its criminal law cases. It appears that many of those convicts released due to the Dookhan scandal have reoffended and have landed back behind bars. The Boston Globe reports that while the initial scare of a massive crime wave sweeping across Massachusetts did not completely come to fruition, efforts to keep Massachusetts’ streets safe have been hampered by the Dookhan releases. There are several factors in the Dookhan cases that seem to contribute to the current increase in crime, and the potential for crime to spike even higher.
First, as one convict mentions in the Boston Globe report, some of the convicts who were released due to the Dookhan scandal are faced with more difficult pressures in regular life, than they would have faced behind bars. The pressures to get a job and do “the right thing” has likely become overwhelming in many cases, and the lack of money has led many convicts back to the lifestyle which led to their criminal charges in the first place. Secondly, there are still around 40,000 cases in which releases may be contemplated due to evidence tampering by Ms. Dookhan. While initially Massachusetts released around 600 defendants due to tainted evidence, the potential for tens of thousands more to be released back on the streets will likely increase crime in Massachusetts cities. On the other hand, if Massachusetts does not release the inmates that were convicted based on tainted evidence, it would perhaps be an even greater blow to the state’s criminal justice system.
Ultimately, of the 613 inmates that were released, 83 were re-arrested on criminal charges. 16 have been arrested more than once, and 3 have committed murder. Massachusetts law enforcement, lawmakers, prosecutors and criminal defense attorneys have a lot of work ahead of them due to Ms. Dookhan’s evidence tampering.
If you have been charged with violating criminal laws, you should immediately seek out the assistance of an experienced criminal law attorney. Contact Edward R. Molari, Attorney at Law today for a confidential consultation.