Support the news
The state could face another drug lab crisis if it doesn't put significant reforms in place, including the creation of an independent audit process, the Boston Bar Association said in a report released Monday.
The BBA, a membership organization of about 10,000 attorneys, said more oversight is needed to make sure the state doesn't have a repeat of the crisis caused by former state chemist Annie Dookhan, whose misconduct at a state drug lab has jeopardized thousands of drug convictions.
Dookhan was convicted of faking test results and tampering with samples at a state Department of Public Health drug lab where police sent substances to test in criminal cases.
A bar association task force began studying the lab crisis in the fall of 2012 after state police closed the lab when they discovered the extent of Dookhan's misconduct. At least 1,100 criminal cases have been dismissed or not prosecuted because of tainted evidence or other fallout from the lab's shutdown.
In its report, the BBA says prosecutors, defense lawyers and judges have made "extraordinary" efforts in the aftermath of the Dookhan case, but says more needs to be done.
"Despite laudable improvements in lab oversight that have taken place in the wake of the lab crisis, the task force believes that the risk of another such crisis in forensic services in Massachusetts is unacceptably high," the report says.
State police have consolidated the functions of the closed DPH lab as well as a lab in Amherst under its supervision, making the labs subject to some audits and eventually an accreditation process.
The task force said that despite these safeguards, it would be a mistake to assume that those changes are enough to prevent misconduct similar to Dookhan's. It recommends that the state create an independent auditing process to review the performance of its forensic services staff and to conduct investigations of any identified issues.
The BBA said the audits should be conducted separately from agencies responsible for investigating and prosecuting criminal cases such as the state police, district attorney's offices, Attorney General's Office and the Executive Office of Public Safety.
"As laudable as many of the steps taken to improve forensic services over the past several years have been, they have not fully addressed the larger issues we have identified," said Michael Ricciuti, a former federal prosecutor and criminal defense attorney who chaired the task force.
"We think it gives an extra level of assurance when you have an outside auditor doing routine audits and responding to whistleblower complaints, that the issues are being handled by an outside third party that is not involved in the criminal prosecution apparatus."
State police spokesman David Procopio said the State Police Forensic Services Group maintains a quality assurance unit responsible for ensuring that the work performed at the labs "meets the highest forensic standards." The work includes audits of lab operations, staff proficiency and professionalism.
The labs earned accreditation from the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors in 2009 and the highest accreditation from the International Standards Organization in 2013.
"Maintaining both accreditations eliminate the need and duplicity of other agencies conducting audits," Procopio said.