Forensic science commission is needed

Lab scandals show need for greater oversight

LET’S TALK NUMBERS, specifically 23,595. As of June 1, 2017, that was the number of convictions that were vacated as a result of Annie Dookhan’s misconduct at the Hinton Drug Laboratory between 2003 and 2009.  There’s another number out there – the number of convictions that will be vacated as a result of Sonja Farak’s misconduct; unfortunately, even though it has been several years since her misconduct has been exposed, we still do not know how many cases were affected, though some say it may be as high as 18,000.  And there’s a third number – the millions of dollars being spent by Massachusetts taxpayers to clean up the mess of state-employed chemists whose misdeeds led to prosecutions that took away the freedom of thousands of individuals. What should scare us most is what we do not have numbers for – that is, the number of cases where science is used beyond its limits, or where errors occur, yet the lab and the courts are unaware because there are no scientific studies to properly assess the techniques or the results.

What allowed Annie Dookhan and Sonja Farak to taint so many cases, affect so many lives, and cost (and continue to cost) Massachusetts so much money? A criminal justice system with insufficient oversight over its use of forensic science.  Unlike what we see on television, science is not magic and it is not foolproof.  It requires training, supervision, faithful adherence to protocol, and unbiased assessments.  And when things go wrong, it requires true investigation, notification to everyone who might be involved, and a concerted effort – by everyone – to make things right.  Instead, we have had serious misconduct, followed by inexcusable coverups, followed by unconscionable delays just to figure out who might have been affected – not to mention the delays to correct those injustices.  But we can do so much better.

Sen. Will Brownsberger introduced legislation (S. 1285) this year to create a forensic science commission in Massachusetts.  This independent commission would include scientists and lawyers who are committed to the integrity of the science relied upon in our courtrooms.  The commission would have the authority to initiate investigations, assess the validity of disciplines and techniques, issue reports, and provide recommendations for reform.  It would also provide oversight of accreditation of labs and engage with stakeholders in Massachusetts to improve the quality of its forensic science.  In other words, a Massachusetts forensic science commission is a win-win for everyone who cares about the integrity of the criminal justice system.

When Texas found itself in a similar situation, the Lone Star State passed legislation resulting in a commission that is widely held to be the gold standard.  To date, the Texas Forensic Science Commission has developed a robust disclosure process, a systematic method for evaluating and investigating complaints, and has established a defendant-notification policy, to name a few of its accomplishments.​

Misapplied forensic science is a leading cause of wrongful convictions.  In fact, it has contributed to nearly half of the DNA exonerations.  At the New England Innocence Project, we believe that no one should go to prison for a crime they did not commit.  That includes crimes for which chemists fabricated evidence and crimes “solved” using junk science.  We know that people continue to be convicted based on this false evidence, and we will continue to fight to change that.

On Oct. 2, the New England Innocence Project will be at the State House to commemorate International Wrongful Conviction Day.  We will be asking our legislators to create a forensic science commission.  We will be asking our legislators to support our efforts to correct and prevent wrongful convictions.  And we will keep working to fix the system until the number of wrongful convictions is zero.

Meet the Author

Radha Natarajan

Staff attorney, New England Innocence Project
The time has come to put an end to lab scandals that erroneously steal freedom from people and money from the Commonwealth.  The time has come for real forensic science oversight and reform.  The time has come for a forensic science commission.

Radha Natarajan is the staff attorney at the New England Innocence Project.