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Tipping the scales

Annie Dookhan is escorted from her home in handcuffs after being arrested, 28th September 2012

Everyone was so thrilled for Annie Dookhan. She did quality control for a vaccine lab near Boston, and no one there worked harder. She arrived near dawn most mornings, and often had to shut the lab’s lights off at night. She never took lunch breaks, either, and often brought paperwork with her on vacations. On top of all that, she’d been getting a graduate degree in chemistry on the side, through a part-time programme at Harvard. As she confessed to colleagues, she’d been forced to drop out of Harvard as an undergraduate a few years prior, due to lack of money, and she’d had to finish her degree at a state university. Earning a graduate degree from Harvard therefore felt particularly sweet — especially considering that she’d finished in record time, just a year. To celebrate, the lab threw her a party, and hung a banner that read “Congratulations, Annie!”

The only thing was, it was all a lie. Dookhan had never taken a class at Harvard, graduate or otherwise. Harvard didn’t even offer a part-time programme in chemistry. Dookhan had made the whole thing up, as a ploy to advance more quickly at her company.

Unfortunately for her, the audacious gambit failed, and the company declined to promote her. Furious, she doctored her résumé (omitting Harvard but adding, falsely, that she was halfway through a master’s degree at another school) and started looking for a new job in 2003. Before long, she secured an offer from a nearby government laboratory that tested drugs for court cases.

Up until that point, the 25-year-old Dookhan had already told plenty of lies. But she’d always had integrity at the lab bench: there’s no evidence she committed any fraud at the vaccine company. All that was about to change.

Annie Dookhan is escorted from her home in handcuffs after being arrested, 28th September 2012

Most people who cut corners are lazy, but Annie Dookhan always worked hard. She grew up in Trinidad, immigrating to Boston with her parents in the late 1980s, when she was around 11. She later attended the prestigious Boston Latin School and ran track there; she even tried hurdling, despite standing just 4ft 11in. She was terrible at it, but her coach marvelled at her hustle.

She got outstanding science grades at Boston Latin School, and later claimed she’d graduated summa cum laude from there, even though the school didn’t grant such honours. She also told people, falsely, that her parents were both doctors. These petty lies continued in college and then at the vaccine company and state drug lab, where she invented elaborate titles for herself, like “on-call supervisor for chemical and biological terrorism” and FBI “special agent of operations.”

Still, however distasteful, the lies to this point hadn’t harmed anyone. But small lies have a way of accumulating momentum, and things soon took a dark turn.

“The Boston lab was drowning in samples to test… The walk-in safe where they stored untested samples was packed so full that it was considered a safety hazard to walk around inside”

Dookhan’s laboratory identified drugs that the police seized during  raids. Sometimes these were blocks of pure drugs; sometimes they were small quantities cut with baking powder or baby formula and divided into baggies or squares of tinfoil for sale on the street. Since many drugs look alike, the police would drop them off at the lab so Dookhan and her colleagues could identify them, which they did through a series of tests.

The first round of tests, called presumptive tests, told the analysts the general class of drug they were dealing with. One test involved adding formaldehyde and sulfuric acid to an unknown powder. If the sample turned red-purple, it was an opiate; if it turned burnt orange, an amphetamine. Other chemicals might turn drugs shades of green or blue.

Let’s say the chemist has an opiate. She’d then run a second, confirmatory test to narrow her results down to a specific drug. The confirmatory test involved taking a bit of the unknown sample, dissolving it in liquid, and running it through some analysis inside a machine. Samples of known opiates (for example, morphine, heroin, fentanyl) went through the same analysis on the same run. The machine then spat out several graphs – a sort of barcode for each sample. By comparing the barcode from the unknown sample to the barcode from the known samples, chemists could identify the exact drug involved and inform the police.

Like drug labs nationwide, the Boston lab was drowning in samples to test. By 2003, their backlog had ballooned to several thousand items; the walk-in safe where they stored untested samples was eventually packed so full that it was considered a safety hazard to walk around inside. But with Dookhan’s arrival, things started looking up. She quickly distinguished herself as not only the hardest-working chemist (first to arrive, last to leave) but also the speediest. In her first year, she churned through 9,239 drug samples – three times the average of what the other nine chemists tested, and more than a quarter of the lab’s output overall. People there started calling her superwoman, a compliment that left her glowing. In emails to prosecutors that she worked with, she bragged about how indispensable she was to the lab.

The Hinton State Laboratory Institute where Dookhan worked

Privately, though, she was using this praise as a balm against pain. In 2004, she met an engineer from her native Trinidad and married him. Before long she was pregnant. But that first pregnancy ended in a miscarriage. (She later suffered another.) Each loss devastated her, and put a huge strain on her relationship.

Rather than take time off to cope, as her supervisor urged, Dookhan blotted out the pain by spending even more time at the lab bench. “I have chocolate and work,” she told her boss, “and that is my way of dealing with it.” The year after the first miscarriage, she set an even more torrid pace than before, racing through 11,232 samples, almost double the second-place chemist and four times the lab average. Dookhan did eventually give birth to a disabled son, which slowed her pace somewhat, but she continued to lap her fellow chemists year after year. Whereas most of them would check out two dozen samples to test at any one time, Dookhan usually took five or six dozen, and once took 119.

Gradually, however, her coworkers grew suspicious about her superwoman pace. Some of this was common sense. How on earth could anyone work so fast? There were circumstantial clues as well. A colleague once caught Dookhan not calibrating her scale – a vital step to ensure accuracy, since the difference between, say, 27.99 grams and 28.00 grams of a drug meant a difference of several years in jail. Colleagues also noticed that, despite all the tests Dookhan recorded doing, she never actually seemed to use her microscope. In a related concern, she didn’t seem to generate enough trash. During one test, called a crystal test, chemists mixed an unknown drug with a liquid on a glass slide. Crystals would soon form. Different drugs made differently shaped crystals, which chemists identified under a microscope. Each test required a clean glass slide to avoid contamination, so based on the number of tests run, chemists should be throwing away a certain number of slides each month. Dookhan wasn’t. Colleagues peeked into her discard bin and noticed how bare it looked.

Dookhan’s colleagues were right to be suspicious. Although it’s not clear when exactly it started, she was committing fraud on a massive scale. Instead of actually running tests, she “dry-labbed” her samples – simply glancing at them and guessing what they were.

“I knew she was lying about running the tests. Ain’t no way, no how, a cashew can turn into crack”

She got away with this by exploiting a flaw in her lab’s workflow. For chain-of-custody reasons, all drug samples were accompanied by ‘control cards’, records that indicated when the drugs were seized, what the police assumed the drugs were, and so on. This is good police procedure. The problem was, chemists like Dookhan had access to the control cards and could therefore see what drugs the police suspected. Allowing chemists to see this information was a bad idea anyway. Suggestions inevitably bias us, nudging us toward certain conclusions and away from others. Dookhan, however, outright exploited the flaw, using the police guess as her entire ‘analysis’. If they said it was heroin, it was heroin. No muss, no fuss.

To be fair, Dookhan always tested unknown samples, those lacking control-card information, since she would have been guessing blindly. She also ran a full array of tests on roughly one-fifth of her samples, just to make sure. But otherwise she skipped all the bothersome chemistry and simply rubber-stamped things, to keep her numbers high. Equally bad, she’d then sign certificates claiming she’d run the tests and submit those to the police. These certificates served as evidence in courtroom trials, so she essentially perjured herself over and over.

Now, in many cases, Dookhan’s dry-labbing made no practical difference: the police generally know what drugs they’re seizing. So even though skipping the test violated a suspect’s right to due process, the final verdict probably would have been the same. But not always. And here’s where Dookhan strayed into truly sinful territory.

Again, there were two rounds of testing at the lab. Often Dookhan would do the first round and another chemist the second, and sometimes the second round – the one that involved machines – would contradict Dookhan’s initial guess. In these cases, a retest was in order. But instead of claiming she’d made a mistake, which might put her superwoman reputation at risk, Dookhan would sneak off, find a pure sample of the drug she’d initially claimed, and submit that for retesting. Presto, the machine now gave the ‘correct’ result. In other words, she started forging evidence to conceal her fraud.

As a result, innocent people went to jail. One man was arrested with inositol, a white powder sold as a health supplement. Dookhan nailed him for cocaine. In another case, a drug addict tried to pull a rather foolhardy scam and sell a fragment of cashew to a fellow hophead, claiming it was crack. The hophead turned out to be an undercover cop. Still, it was just cashew, no big deal. The man then watched, stunned, as Dookhan swore in court to the contrary. “I knew she was lying” about running the tests, he later said. “Ain’t no way, no how, a cashew can turn into crack.”

Not everyone Dookhan lied about went to jail; low-level drug offenders often didn’t. But drug convictions have consequences beyond prison terms. You can get deported or fired or kicked out of public housing. You can lose your driver’s license or the right to see your children. If you appear in court again, you’re also a repeat offender.

Annie Dookhan appears at Suffolk superior court, Boston, Massachusetts, 26th April 2013

Annie Dookhan appears at Suffolk superior court, Boston, Massachusetts, 26th April 2013

Dookhan never gave a satisfying explanation for why she jeopardised so many people’s lives. Still, her words and actions do provide some hints. First, Dookhan seemed to enjoy busting drug dealers. She was often inappropriately friendly with local prosecutors and wrote them earnest emails about getting bad guys “off the street”. One prosecutor offered to buy her drinks at a top-shelf bar. Another had to resign when his flirty emails with Dookhan became public. Once, she asked a prosecutor’s advice on whether she should even bother responding to a defence attorney’s plea for help with his client’s case.

Dookhan was also severely stressed, which psychological research shows can tempt people to cut corners and act immorally. Given the huge backlog at the lab, everyone there faced substantial pressure to churn through samples. Compounding this problem, Dookhan had suffered multiple miscarriages and was unhappy at home; she had no family beyond her parents, and lived right next to her entire clan of in-laws, never an easy thing. That’s no excuse, but prolonged stress can deplete our mental stamina and lower our sense of empathy toward others. Given her own messy mental state, Dookhan might have found it easier to ignore the possibility that her fraud was ruining people’s lives.

“The state legislature had to allocate $30 million to deal with the fallout… it was estimated it would take 16 paralegals a full year of work just to notify all the affected people”

Especially when that fraud won her praise. Some people lie to manipulate others or gain material things. Dookhan wanted scientific glory – she loved being called superwoman. Her old supervisor at the vaccine lab also speculated that her status as an immigrant and a woman of colour might have played a role. The supervisor, who is black, said, “I understand what it is like to be a minority in America. I think that experience reinforced her determination to show that she was just as good, or even better.”

Normally, that determination is a healthy thing, pushing people to achieve more and bust stereotypes. But Dookhan wasn’t earning her accolades; she pursued the glory without the underlying accomplishment. This is actually a common failing among those who commit scientific fraud. Rather than knowledge, they seek awards and prestige – the trappings of science rather than science itself. But it’s one thing to churn out fraudulent work in, say, optics or ornithology. Dookhan did so in a forensics lab, where people’s freedoms were at stake.

Dookhan eventually pleaded guilty to 27 counts of perjury, tampering with evidence, and obstruction of justice. Her confession also plunged the entire legal system of Massachusetts into chaos. Because Dookhan couldn’t remember which samples she’d dry-labbed and which she’d actually tested, all 36,000 cases she’d worked on during her career were now suspect. The state legislature had to allocate $30 million to deal with the fallout; one legal advocacy group estimated it would take 16 paralegals a full year of work just to notify all the affected people, much less get them into court. Appeals began flooding in, and Massachusetts courts overturned 21,587 convictions, the largest such action in US history.

The dismissals must have been sweet revenge for the likes of the cashew-crack perp, who knew that the lab’s superwoman was crooked all along. (People on the streets of Boston began to speak of being “Dookhaned”.) But there were other issues here as well. However you feel about America’s never-ending war on drugs – and all the fairly harmless people caught in its dragnet – at least some of those 21,587 defendants were violent offenders. Thanks to Dookhan, they suddenly went free. At least 600 convicts were released from jail or had charges dismissed, and 84 of them marched right back out and committed more crimes. One of them murdered someone in a drug deal gone south. Another was arrested on weapons charges. Upon being caught, he laughed: “I just got out thanks to Annie Dookhan. I love that lady.”

In November 2013, a judge sentenced Dookhan to three to five years in prison. For comparison, trafficking a single ounce of heroin carried a sentence of seven years. Considering the scale of her misdeeds, the paltriness of the sentence frustrated many. “You walk away feeling this is really inadequate,” a state legislator said. “Three to five years is not adequate.” Indeed, Dookhan didn’t even serve three years, walking out of prison a free woman in April 2016.

Annie Dookhan is hardly the only forensic scientist to be busted for wrongdoing. In the past 20 years, similar scandals have erupted in Florida, Minnesota, Montana, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Carolina, Texas and West Virginia.

Sadly, the string of incidents includes the distortion or withholding of forensic evidence in at least three death-penalty cases. Incompetence has been an ongoing issue as well. Crime labs have been caught leaving evidence under leaky roofs or in unsecured hallways. One laboratory was run by police officers who got most of their scientific training through Wikipedia. Agonizingly, Massachusetts got burned a second time shortly after Dookhan’s arrest. A chemist in the state’s Amherst laboratory was caught dipping into samples of meth, cocaine, ketamine, and ecstasy at work and getting high while running tests. She also smoked crack in the courthouse bathroom before testifying.

Dookhan’s fraud nevertheless stands out for its audacity and scope. In some ways, it’s hard to believe she got away with her crimes for so long. In other ways, it’s no surprise at all. Our culture puts scientists on a pedestal: We like thinking there are people out there who value probity and truth above all else. We want to believe them, and scientists get bamboozled by their colleagues as easily as anyone. Dookhan’s supervisors received warnings about her, but they were slow to take meaningful action. Professional magicians, in fact, have said that scientists are often easier to fool than regular folks, because they have an outsized confidence in their own intelligence and objectivity. The Dookhans of the world simply exploit this fact.

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