Suspicions ignored as bosses let chemist work on
Friday, September 28, 2012
BOSTON (AP) — Chemist Annie Dookhan was “Superwoman,” a colleague at a Massachusetts state crime lab used to joke. She seemed unstoppable in her quest to please prosecutors, police and her bosses, testing two to three times more drug samples than anyone else, working through lunch and not bothering to put in for overtime.
“The kind of person, if you owned your own business, you would want to hire her,” a supervisor would later tell police.
At least as far back as four years ago, some colleagues and higher-ups had their suspicions about the way she seemed to plow through so many cases so fast. One supervisor complained he never actually saw her in front of a microscope. But her superiors let her work on.
Now, the startling explanation has come spilling out: Dookhan told investigators she faked test results on drug samples and cut other corners.
The scandal has created a legal morass of monumental proportions, with tens of thousands of drug cases in Massachusetts thrown into jeopardy.
Dookhan, 34, is still under investigation by the state attorney general and has not been charged, and investigators have offered no motive for the fakery. She has not responded to repeated requests for comment.
The fallout could be huge.
Gov. Deval Patrick ordered a shutdown last month of the Boston lab, and the scandal has led to a firing and two resignations, including that of the state public health commissioner, whose department oversaw the William A. Hinton State Laboratory Institute before it was transferred to the Massachusetts State Police over the summer.
A war room of sorts is being assembled to pick through Dookhan’s cases and determine which ones have been compromised.
Law enforcement officials say Dookhan tested more than 60,000 drug samples involving 34,000 defendants in her nine years at the lab. More than a dozen defendants are already back on the streets as authorities try to determine whether Dookhan’s actions tainted the evidence in their cases, and more could be sprung. Authorities say more than 1,100 inmates are doing time based at least in part on Dookhan’s work.
“It’s incalculable the damage she’s done ... not to say all the time, money and energy it’s going to take the commonwealth,” said defense attorney Bernie Grossberg, who has already had one client get out of prison and is being inundated with calls from others.
It remains to be seen if any lab supervisors face criminal consequences.
The governor said Thursday it was troubling that Dookhan and her supervisors “did not seem to understand the gravity” of her actions.
“I fully expect, and indeed I will say I hope that there are charges, and I think that all of those who are accountable for the impact on individual cases need to be held accountable,” Patrick said.
The governor has not said how much money he expects the state will have to spend dealing with the crisis, but on Thursday his budget chief, Jay Gonzalez, wrote to district attorneys, court administrators and other state officials asking for an initial estimate of the costs expected as a result of the lab breach.
The letter also seeks a description of the “scope, nature and timing” of the anticipated work.
Dookhan’s alleged confession and the missed warning signs were detailed in state police reports obtained this week by The Associated Press.
As early as 2008, a supervisor noticed Dookhan’s testing numbers were high. He spoke to her superior, but nothing happened. In 2009, the supervisor took his concerns to another superior, saying he never saw Dookhan in front of a microscope.
In 2010, a supervisor did an audit of Dookhan’s paperwork but didn’t retest any of her samples. The audit found nothing wrong. The same year, a fellow chemist found seven instances where Dookhan incorrectly identified a drug sample as a certain narcotic when it was something else. He told himself it was an honest mistake.
In one incident detailed by state police, a lab employee witnessed Dookhan weighing drug samples without doing a balance check on her scale.
Dookhan was handling a staggering number of samples. An average chemist could test 50 to 150 samples a month, but Dookhan was doing more than 500, according to monthly reports, a lab employee told police later.
At one point in 2011, a top official even gave Dookhan a special project to try to slow her down.
Other lab employees worried about their own jobs and their prospects for promotion because their productivity wasn’t as high as Dookhan’s.
She was eventually suspended from lab duties after getting caught forging a colleague’s initials on paperwork in mid-2011. Dookhan resigned last March as the Public Health Department investigated.
Over the summer, police interviewed Dookhan at her home, and she admitted faking test results for two to three years, forging signatures and skipping proper procedures, according to the reports.
Dookhan said she cheated by “dry labbing,” or identifying a drug sample as a narcotic by looking at it instead of testing it. She said she routinely tested only five out of every 25 samples, and deliberately turned a negative sample into a positive for narcotics a few times.
At least one defense attorney has also accused her of overstating the weight of some of the seized drugs to expose defendants to heavier penalties.
Dookhan told police she just wanted to the get the work done and never meant to hurt anybody.
“I screwed up big-time,” she was quoted as saying. “I messed up bad, it’s my fault. I don’t want the lab to get in trouble.”
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