One Woman Wrongly Sent 21,000 People To Prison

The next time someone is sentenced to prison for drug possession, and you’re tempted to think “they got what they deserved”, I urge you to remember Annie Dookhan. Because of her forged test results, more than 21,500 people were convicted of drug crimes. Those convictions have now been overturned en masse (sadly, it took four years for this to happen). Chances are, many of those people actually were in possession of illegal drugs, but the point here is We Just Don’t Know. And this is just one chemist in the state of Massachusetts.

Dookhan has already served two-and-a-half years for her crime and has since been released. It is impossible to calculate how many years innocent people languished in prison due to her fraud. It is impossible to calculate how many job opportunities disappeared due to felony records, how many families lost income and support, how many children lost a father or mother to the bowels of the “justice” system. Far more than 21,500 people were affected, once you add their parents, their spouses, and their children.

It is also worth considering that rehab is far less expensive than prison — even for people who actually turned out to be guilty of nonviolent drug crimes, and that education/training programs can reduce recidivism by orders of magnitude, even for violent offenders.

(Note: I cross-posted this to Facebook.)

  1. Dana says:

    Sadly, I doubt this was an isolated incident. We live in a society that believes in punishment over justice. The criminal “justice” system as it exists today in the U.S. isn’t really interested in finding the truth but rather holding someone (anyone) accountable through punishment and incarceration.

    While this is possibly the widest-ranging scandal, almost every State has been plagued by a scandal or two involving a chemist or scientist working for the government who was either incompetent or dishonest. We’ve had several here in NYC, although none of them affected quite as many people as this Massachusetts case.

    Chemists lie, prosecutors lie, police lie. They all believe their lies are acceptable because the ends (putting people in prison) justify the means.

    Even when the chemists aren’t outright dishonest, things like confirmation bias can affect the neutrality of the results (i.e. a chemist who knows that someone was arrested for possession of alleged crack cocaine is more likely to confirm that a particular substance is in fact crack cocaine than a chemist who is merely asked to identify what a particular substance is without knowing the allegations of the case). Confirmation bias also shows up in scenarios involving dna testing. For example, if an examiner is asked to analyze dna on evidence in cases where a suspect has already been arrested, they are more likely to find that the dna matches that of the person arrested (than in “cold hit” or blind cases where the examiner does not have any preconceived notions of who the dna is from).

    • Wil C. Fry says:

      Yes, to all this.

      I know it’s widespread. In fact, one case was so egregious — under the district attorney I formerly covered as a small-town journalist — that John Grisham wrote a non-fiction book about it. (The DA in this story is the same one that prosecuted most of the trials I covered in Seminole County.)

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