SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

August 28, 2013

Our view: Tarr bill would restore crime lab credibility


The Salem News

---- — The news last week that the alleged chemical handiwork of the disgraced and criminally charged Annie Dookhan in the state’s shuttered Jamaica Plain crime lab tainted more than 40,000 drug cases has brought some predictable new cries of outrage, and an understandable new Statehouse push for reforms.

But state lawmakers on both sides of the aisles need not worry about reinventing the wheel.

A series of reforms contained in a bill filed last January by state Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr and his Republican caucus was placed on the Legislature’s dusty shelves at the time. But Tarr’s bill provides some practical and badly needed reform proposals that the Gloucester Republican — whose district includes Boxford, Groveland and parts of North Andover — advanced when the crime lab system’s credibility was damaged well beyond repair. And that came months before last week’s revelations pinpointed that drug cases involving no less than 40,323 individuals were tainted by Dookhan’s actions.

Dookhan was a chemist at the state’s drug lab in Jamaica Plain from 2003 to 2012. Her work involved testing drugs seized by police from suspects in order to provide forensic identification of the drugs for use in the prosecution of those suspects. But Dookhan initially admitted to investigators that she cut corners to save time, including identifying the drugs by visual inspection alone, rather than running tests on them.

Dookhan has since pleaded not guilty to tampering with evidence.

Dookhan’s alleged misdeeds have cost the state millions and set back the fight against drugs and crime. More than 600 incarcerated convicts have been released as the tainted evidence voided their convictions. Some of those released have gone on to commit violent crimes, according to a report in the Boston Globe. The crime lab where she worked remains closed.

Among the provisions of Tarr’s crime lab oversight bill are calls for quarterly reports from the state’s undersecretary for forensic sciences that would outline:

The volume of forensic services at each facility.

The volume of forensic services handled by each employee at such facilities.

The costs and length of time from submission for testing or procedures and the return of results from such facilities

Facility employee records, qualifications, and incident reports.

A minimum of one public oversight hearing per year for the board to receive testimony relative to the operations of state laboratories.

Some of that may sound like overkill — especially when carried out on a quarterly basis. And, over time, that may prove to be the case.

But lawmakers must face the reality that, right now, the state’s handling of drug crime evidence carries a level of credibility and confidence that, if measurable, would likely run into negative numbers. And while that may have drug-case defense lawyers frothing at the mouth, all of this sends a chilling message to law enforcement officials and residents who should be able to expect a must more secure system for preserving public safety.

Tarr noted Wednesday that his January bill “would instill the necessary oversight, accountability, and transparency needed to ensure a system that demands integrity.” And he’s right.

It might not address all of the state’s crime lab ills. But it sure is a good place to start.