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Forensic Chemist Who Helped Put Hundreds in Jail Pleads the Fifth to Fraud Charges

What might have been be a standard academic fraud case is complicated by the fact that the scientist isn't just any chemist, she's a forensic chemist

This is not the lab in question. Image: Ed Uthman

In the court room, forensics and science can be extremely powerful. Forensic chemists can tell the jury whether DNA was present, what drug the victim was given or what cleaning solution was used to hide the evidence. But what happens when the trusted scientist is a fraud?

In September, Annie Dookhan, a chemist in Boston, was arrested for scientific fraud. What might have been be a standard academic fraud case is complicated by the fact that Dookhan isn’t just any chemist, she’s a forensic chemist. Her lab handled samples in something like 34,000 cases. Around 1,100 people are in jail based on her work. Nature writes:

Dookhan has pleaded not guilty to charges of obstructing justice by falsifying data in two criminal cases, and of lying under oath about her qualifications. However, a wide-ranging confession by Dookhan documented in a police report published by The Boston Globe implies that she falsified results on numerous occasions over the past 2–3 years. In most cases, she had guessed the nature of samples she had been asked to test; but “a few times” she had recorded the results of negative drug tests as being positive. Because Dookhan wasn’t able to tell police which samples she had faked, and has said that she sometimes contaminated samples after the fact so that they would conform to her guesses, the possibility of wrongful conviction now swirls around the tens of thousands of cases on which she worked. Those who are currently serving jail terms are set to have their cases reviewed in court hearings that will begin on 15 October.

Yesterday, Dookhan refused to testify, pleading the Fifth Amendment. Other chemists in the lab are ready to testify though. The Boston Globe writes:

The attorney for the five chemists, James McDonagh, said the Drumgold trial is the first time his clients have been subpoenaed as witnesses since the drug lab scandal broke this year. Dookhan handled some 60,000 drug samples and has admitted to State Police that she manipulated results in some tests in the last “two or three years.”

On Wednesday, McDonagh said all five chemists were willing and ready to testify.

WPRI in Boston has the story too:

As in many academic fraud cases, Dookhan probably felt pressure to perform. And she certainly was performing. CBS News reports that while others in her lab would test between 50 and 150 samples each month, Dookhan claimed to have tested 500. In a police report, Dookhan is quoted as saying: “I screwed up big-time. I messed up bad; it’s my fault. I don’t want the lab to get in trouble.”

More from Smithsonian.com:

How Often Do Scientists Commit Fraud?

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About Rose Eveleth
Rose Eveleth

Rose Eveleth is a writer for Smart News and a producer/designer/ science writer/ animator based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Scientific American, Story Collider, TED-Ed and OnEarth.

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