A disaster is unfolding in the Massachusetts criminal justice system. Because a chemist in a state drug laboratory has admitted skirting protocols and faking test results, thousands of cases may be undermined. Convicts are being released on bail as their appeals work their way through the system.
The consequences of the actions of Annie Dookhan are potentially catastrophic. Either Dookhan’s actions risk setting guilty people free or they have already sent innocent people to prison. Neither is acceptable. It’s a cry for better supervision in drug labs generally and for the full range of reforms that can help prevent wrongful convictions.
The goal of criminal justice has to be to assign guilt where it belongs as promptly and efficiently as due process allows. Too often, though, justice is miscarried through misconduct or preventable error – not all of the time or even most of the time, but the tide of DNA exonerations has risen, at a rate that is clearly higher than a just society should be willing to tolerate.
New York has an especially bad problem with wrongful convictions, and it has been dragging its feet on taking steps to ensure that the right people are convicted. When innocent people are sent to prison, not only does that rob them of years and even decades of their liberty, but it leaves that real criminal free to continue pillaging society.
Those convictions are based on problems that can be minimized through reforms that have been adopted in other states. One of the worst problems is witness misidentification, which is how Anthony Capozzi came to spend 21 years behind bars for rapes he didn’t commit. Meanwhile, the real criminal, Altemio Sanchez, began a murder spree as the Bike Path Killer.
That problem can be lessened by creating better lineup procedures. The odd-but-true problem of false confession – often by suspects who are exhausted or mentally ill – can be attacked by recording interrogations.
Problems like those that occurred in Massachusetts may require more thought, although closer supervision is an obvious possibility.
We can’t build a perfect criminal justice system, since it always relies on the efforts of human beings, who are notably imperfect. But we can do better than this.