In order to be used in a trial against a suspect, physical evidence collected by police has to follow a rigorous chain of command through the hands of police and professionals trained to properly handle such important items. This evidence can be the difference between a full acquittal and a guilty verdict, which is why it is supposed to be carefully watched and handled by those in the police department. But what happens when the very person who is assigned to test evidence is actually committing fraud? San Marcos criminal defense attorney Peter M. Liss explains.
While cases like this are rare, they do happen and the consequences can be far, far reaching. In one notable recent case, Massachusetts State Police chemist Annie Dookhan plead guilty to tampering with evidence after confessing that she that she cut corners on drug tests, improperly removed evidence from storage, forged signatures on documents and recorded tests as positive when they were actually negative. In addition, she lied about having a master’s in chemistry when applying for her job. Dookhan committed these acts for between two and three years and she was involved with over 34,000 criminal cases.
It took five years for the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court to decide which of the 24,000 convictions Dookhan participated in will be retried and which of them will be overturned. According to prosecutors, at least 95% of the convictions will likely be overturned. As for the rest, they will have to be retried without any evidence that was touched by the one-time police chemist. Fallbrook criminal lawyers know that the evidence would have to be pretty strong for the prosecutors to successfully retry drug crimes without any chemical evidence related to the drugs themselves, so many of these convictions will also be overturned.
Unfortunately, because most of those convicted with the tainted evidence were charged with misdemeanors or low-level felonies, 90% of the people who suffered due to Dookhan’s work have already served their full sentences. On the upside, the crimes will be wiped from their records and will not affect their ability to find jobs or housing any more.
It’s worth noting that the decision to retry or overturn all of the convictions is not something automatically done under the law. It was a compromise the state supreme court reached after prosecutors on the crimes argued that the convictions should be left to stand until individuals argued their cases one-by-one in court while civil rights advocates argued that everyone convicted with Dookhan’s evidence should be released automatically. The court agreed that it would be unfair for each person convicted to have to hire their own attorney and fight the charges and instead ruled that the prosecutors could pick and choose some of their strongest cases to retry.
In a similar local case that took place in 2009, but after over 500 retests paid for by the third-party company the city contracted to test samples showed no sign of inconsistencies from the original reports, the issue was dropped. In the end, no prisoners were released in that case as it was determined the test results were accurate.
These scandals are an excellent reminder of why it always pays to have your Escondido drug lawyer retest and/or challenge a chemical sample if you disagree with the evidence presented by the prosecution. It is important to remember that while forensic science can help law enforcement better solve crimes, it is not infallible, particularly if those testing it or otherwise handling it may have tampered with the results.
If you have been accused of a drug crime, Rancho Bernardo drug defense attorney Peter M. Liss can help. Please call (760) 643-4050 to schedule a free initial consultation to discuss your case.
Creative Commons Image by Bill Smith