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Thousands of defendants may appeal tainted drug crime convictions

Forensic testing in criminal cases has become the stuff of legend, in large part, because of television crime dramas that portray these tests as irrefutable proof of guilt or innocence. But in real life, forensic testing is increasingly becoming a source of controversy.

Sometimes, the problem is with the tests themselves. A few weeks ago, we wrote about a startling admission by the FBI that a widely used test called microscopic hair comparison is basically unreliable as a forensic tool. In other cases, unreliable tests are not the only problem. There are times when the forensic "experts" are to blame. Readers may remember a case from Massachusetts several years ago that is still making headlines today.

For nine years, a woman named Annie Dookhan worked at a drug lab in Boston, analyzing and processing drug samples to be used as evidence in criminal cases. It was eventually discovered that Dookhan had lied about her credentials, regularly mixed up samples, forged other peoples' signatures and declared samples positive for drugs without testing them. All of this was done simply so she could appear impressive and advance her career.

There is no telling how many cases Dookhan has compromised, but the number could be in the tens of thousands. In 2013, she pleaded guilty to dozens of criminal counts and is serving three to five years in prison.

Earlier this month, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court unanimously ruled that individuals convicted based on Dookhan's possibly tainted evidence will be allowed to seek new trials without having to worry about facing additional charges or a more severe sentence if they do.

There is no doubt that Ms. Dookhan's bizarre and selfish actions created monumental problems for defendants and prosecutors. But prior to this recent ruling, many defendants were reluctant to seek a new trial for fear of facing even harsher consequences. Hopefully, the Court's decision will finally set in motion the lengthy process of restoring justice and untangling a complicated mess caused by one person's misconduct.

Although similar problems have not been reported here in Wisconsin, the Dookhan scandal nonetheless reminds us that mistakes or misconduct can unfairly impact a person's right to a fair trial. If you are facing criminal charges, please seek the help of an experienced criminal defense attorney who can ensure that your rights are protected.

Source: The New York Times, "Massachusetts Justices Clear Way for New Trials in Cases Chemist May Have Tainted," Jess Bidgood, May 18, 2015

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