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Editorial: Beaucoup blame in lab scandal

There appears to be no end in sight to the ramifications of a misguided chemist’s deeds at a Boston crime lab. To call this situation a scandal doesn’t acknowledge the enormity of debacle. Yes, there were breaches of ethics, lapses in protocol and even apparent malfeasance on the part of a troubled, rogue chemist.

But it’s almost too easy to villify that one chemist, who now stands charged with crimes. And even if she has no direct co-conspirators, there appears to have been an utter failure of oversight by people who should have been watching the ship. Their work could have prevented the catastrophe on the state’s hands today.

To sum up, Annie Dookhan, a former longtime state crime lab chemist, has admitted she altered test results, forged signatures, and failed to perform proper tests for two or three years, acts that call into question tens of thousands of criminal cases in which she had a hand.

An investigation determined that Dookhan, 34, of Franklin, who began working at the lab in 2003, had mishandled thousands of drug tests involving thousands of criminal cases. Dookhan resigned her post in March as the investigation into her work began picking up steam.

Ironically, on the same day some defendants she helped put in prison were released, Dookhan was arrested Sept. 28 and has since pleaded not guilty to obstruction of justice and other charges.

Prior to the arrest, investigations into the allegations led not only to the closing in August of the Hinton State Laboratory Institute in Boston, her workplace, but also to the dismissal or resignation of at least three officials, including the state’s commissioner of public health.

Meanwhile, investigators say Dookhan tested more than 60,000 drug samples involving 34,000 defendants during her nine years on the job. So far, more than 20 people have been released from jail as a direct result of Dookhan’s breach of ethics — and alleged violations of law. Very likely, hundreds more could see sentences vacated. Authorities say more than 1,141 inmates are serving time for cases in which Dookhan played a role.

While the malfeasance appears to be limited to criminal cases in the eastern part of the state, all Massachusetts district attorneys have been provided with a list of defendants whose cases may have passed through Dookhan’s hands. Northwestern District Attorney David Sullivan has said cases in this district are handled in labs in Amherst or Sudbury, and not the one where Dookhan worked. But he has vowed to find out if there were cases whose drug evidence was indeed tested in Boston, and take proper action if so. Throughout the investigation, authorities have seemed bewildered over Dookhan’s motives. They say she may have wanted to be seen as a hard worker.

Many red flags that could have stopped this travesty went unseen by those with the duty to notice and care. It would be wrong to levy blame only on Dookhan. According to a State Police report, colleagues were suspicious of Dookhan’s work habits for years and reported these doubts to higher-ups, yet nothing was done. Here are some of the findings in that 100-page report:

• Red flag: Dookhan’s too-good-to believe productivity level.

• Red flag: Dookhan’s penchant for working overtime without pay.

• Red flag: She was the most productive chemist in the lab — and not just by a little bit. She routinely tested 500 samples a month compared to her coworkers’ rate of between 50 and 150.

• Red flag: She lied on her resume.

• Red flag: She removed drug evidence without permission.

• Red flag: She was always trying to please everyone, according to a colleague.

• Red flag: When one colleague tried to keep up with Dookhan’s pace, supervisors told her not to, saying that “is against protocol.”

Attorney General Martha Coakley told reporters the day Dookhan was arrested that the chemist’s “actions totally turned a system on its head.”

But that’s not a full assessment because something is deeply wrong with a system that allows the actions of one employee to bring the system to its knees, undo years of work, undermine public confidence, public safety and the common good. The pressing question for investigators is not how this happened, but why it wasn’t stopped.

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