The injustice orchestrated by lab chemist Annie Dookhan was first revealed five years ago, after she had been working for the Massachusetts state drug lab for nearly a decade to help prosecutors, in her words, get drug dealers “off the streets.” Then the lab chemist once called “superwoman” for her exceptional speed running tests told state police that she had “screwed up big-time.”
In the year that followed, authorities would call into question the convictions of tens of thousands of drug cases handled by Dookhan in the Massachusetts state drug lab.
There was a reason she was so fast, it turned out: She eventually told investigators she tripled the productivity rates of her colleagues by not actually testing all the drugs that came before her, forging her co-workers’ initials and mixing drug samples so that her shoddy analysis matched the results she gave prosecutors.
Her motivation, according to her attorney, reflected the overachiever mentality she had exhibited throughout her life: to be “the hardest working and most prolific and most productive chemist.”
But the full consequences of her crimes became clear only this week when prosecutors in eight Boston-area counties announced they would dismiss 21,587 drug cases tainted by Dookhan’s misconduct.
On Thursday, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court made those dismissals official. The American Civil Liberties Union in Massachusetts called it the largest dismissal of convictions in U.S. history.
“Today is a major victory for justice, fairness, and the tens of thousands of people who were wrongfully convicted based on fabricated evidence,” ACLU executive director Carol Rose said in a statement.
It appears Dookhan has remained mum since her own conviction in 2013 for these deceptions, which the Supreme Judicial Court once said “cast a shadow over the entire criminal justice system.”
Her silence is not surprising. Profiles by the Boston Globe and Associated Press from years ago, when Dookhan was first arrested, portray the Trinidad-born immigrant as soft-spoken, work-obsessed and deeply private.
She was a go-getter so anxious to please, former friends and colleagues said, that she made a habit of stretching the truth — and sometimes outright lying — to inflate her personal narrative.
The turning point, the reports suggest, may have come in 2009, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the case of Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts that defendants in drug cases have a right to confront the chemists who test the drugs. Chemists, as a result, wound up spending a lot more time in court and a lot less time in their labs.
While the productivity of Dookhan’s fellow chemists dropped off, Dookhan’s continued to skyrocket.
By the end of 2009, the Globe reported that other chemists had completed an average of 1,981 tests.
Dookhan had run 6,321.
That year, she also told police she started to “dry-lab” to further increase her productivity so she could keep up. Dry-labbing is essentially identifying the drugs as what they were suspected to be. If a sample was returned to her after a retest revealed it wasn’t what she said it was, she would contaminate it so it matched.
“My colleagues call me ‘superwoman’ and say that I do too much for the lab and everyone else, in general,” Dookhan wrote in an email to an assistant district attorney, reported the Globe. “I am not a workaholic, but it is just in my nature to assist in any way possible.”
At an unassuming 4 feet 11 inches, Dookhan had gotten the nickname “Little Annie.” But “Little Annie” turned out to be a big liar.
One of Annie Dookhan’s first known fibs played out on her résumé 20 years ago, according to the Globe, when she claimed she had graduated from her prestigious Boston prep school, Boston Latin Academy, “magna cum laude.”
But that distinction, according to the school, did not exist.
She peddled other exaggerations and lies — about her parents’ job titles, her job titles, her salary and divorce proceedings.
Most damning though, beyond the tampered drug tests, was the lie she told about advanced degrees she never earned, which ultimately resulted in additional charges. She once swore under oath she earned a master’s degree, which she hadn’t.
There was no doubt about her intelligence. Classmates, professors at the University of Massachusetts, bosses and colleagues all attested to that in interviews with the Globe. She would come to work early and leave late, never resting for lunch or snacks and often taking work home with her.
“She wanted to be able to say that she was an accomplished person,” Anthony Parham, Dookhan’s former supervisor at a vaccine lab where she had previously worked, told the Globe.
“She grew up very isolated, without many people of her background around her,” said Parham, who is African American. “I understand what it is like to be a minority in America. I think that experience reinforced her determination to show that she was just as good, or even better.”
Dookhan started working for the state drug lab in 2004, and in her first full year on the job tested 9,239 drug samples, three times more than other chemists in the lab. The following year, that number jumped to 11,232, four times the average chemist and nearly double the second-most productive person behind her.
The year she started at the state lab, Dookhan married Surrendranath Dookhan, who would years later send frantic text messages to a district attorney his wife had befriended.
In them, he told the former assistant Norfolk County district attorney George Papachristos that his chemist wife was “looking for sympathy and attention.”
“This is Annie’s husband do not believe her, she’s a liar, she’s always lying,” one text message said.
Papachristos later resigned from his district attorney job after news reports of his personal friendship with Dookhan.
At work, colleagues began to question the lab’s most unrealistically productive chemist, and in 2010, supervisors conducted a paperwork audit of her work but found no problems, reported the Associated Press. They did not retest her samples.
In June 2011, she was suspended from lab duties after she was caught forging a colleague’s initials.
It wasn’t until March 2012, after nearly a decade on the job, that Dookhan resigned.
That’s when she said “I screwed up big-time,” according to a state police report. “I messed up bad. It’s my fault.”
In 2013, Dookhan pleaded guilty to 27 counts of misleading investigators, tampering with evidence and filing false reports. She was sentenced to three years in prison, plus probation. A year ago this month, Dookhan was released.
The court has asked prosecutors to decide which cases to retry and which to drop.
Meanwhile, authorities in Massachusetts are now dealing with a second major scandal at the Massachusetts state drug lab stemming from the disclosure last year that another chemist, Sonja Farak, was actively stealing and using seized drug samples while analyzing them. She pleaded guilty in 2014. The consequences of Farak’s case are still to be calculated.
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