Shut down of yet another state lab used to certify drug evidence

The recent closing of a Massachusetts drug laboratory used for certifying drug evidence submitted by police is broadly relevant to the criminal justice system across the country, including in Georgia.

The matter — described by Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick as “deeply troubling” — underscores that cracks in the justice system can cast great doubt on evidence handling, prosecutions and criminal convictions in drug possession, drug trafficking and other charges.

The problems in the lab are hardly singular or incapable of recurrence elsewhere. In fact, the lab’s shutdown follows closures of other testing facilities throughout the country, which have compromised prosecutors’ cases and led to legal challenges by defense attorneys concerned that their clients were either wrongly convicted or are presently confronting an uneven playing field marked by tainted evidence.

In recent years, for example, lab closures have been announced in New York, Michigan and California. In San Francisco, a laboratory technician was allegedly skimming cocaine from submitted evidence. In Detroit, independent auditors discovered “serious errors” in evidence handling.

And now, the Massachusetts lab has been close following an internal investigation revealing that a chemist there mishandled evidence and failed to follow proper certification protocols.

Defense attorneys point to more than just the evidence that may have been tainted in potentially thousands of cases. They stress concerns with the nature of the lab itself, which is state-run rather than being an entirely independent entity.

There is “an inherent bias” that exists in that, says one attorney, “because the people that are conducting the tests are working for, basically, law enforcement, and to a lesser extent, the prosecution.”

Many challenges are expected to the results of any drug certification by the chemist under investigation.

Gov. Deval seemingly welcomes them.

“No breach this serious can or will be tolerated,” he said following the closure announcement.

Source: Washington Post, “Closing of Mass. crime lab could jeopardize thousands of drug cases,” Aug. 31, 2012