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Crime lab case shows how human element can threaten justice

In the criminal justice system, the yardstick by which all convictions are supposed to be measured is whether there is guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. The onus is on the prosecution in Virginia and every other state to provide clear evidence to support such a verdict.

Science, where it can be applied, has come to be a major building block in a lot of prosecution cases. But that science is only as good as the people who handle the research, and as one story that is making news these days suggests, sometimes human error, or outright malfeasance, raises more than just reasonable doubt, especially when drug charges are involved.

Just such activity is alleged to be at the heart of a scandal at a Massachusetts crime lab involving one former chemist. According to reports, more than 30,000 drug-related cases are now in doubt because the chemist allegedly falsified tests, tampered with drug evidence and faked tests she never conducted. In addition, she is accused of lying under oath by saying that she had a master's degree in chemistry.

The discovery of the scandal has already resulted in the release of hundreds of defendants who have successfully challenged their convictions. More are in the wings. And prosecutors say they are now reviewing tens of thousands of cases in which the woman had a hand.

Prosecutors and police are bemoaning the developments. ­They say the cases now in question represent almost 10 year's worth of work, and they say it could cost tens of millions of dollars to complete all the necessary reviews.

In the meantime, defense attorneys who feel their clients have been dealt a raw hand because of the chemist's alleged misdeeds observe that the issue shouldn't be about the headache they cause to the state. They say the bigger issue is that a lot of people have been convicted, sent to prison, lost jobs and families as a result of questionable lab evidence, and they deserve fair trials.

In addition to facing criminal charges, the former lab worker has also been named as a defendant in at least one civil lawsuit.

Sources: National Public Radio, "Crime Lab Scandal Leaves Mass. Legal System In Turmoil," Tovia Smith, March 14, 2013; Reuters, "Accused Massachusetts crime lab chemist faces civil suit," Daniel Lovering, Feb. 4, 2013

  • Criminal charges such as those discussed here are among those handled by our firm. Readers may wish to learn more about our practice by visiting our Virginia Beach drug crime charges page.

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