The criminal justice system is only as fair as those who work within it. Most men and women who do this important work are honest. But it only takes a few bad actors to cause serious havoc and call the integrity of the entire system into question.
One of the biggest examples of this in recent history was the egregious misconduct of a woman named Annie Dookhan. She worked as a chemist analyzing drug evidence in a Massachusetts lab from 2003 to 2012. Dookhan was fired and eventually prosecuted for falsifying results, mishandling evidence and contaminating evidence. The misdeeds of this one woman cast doubt on some 40,000 criminal cases.
Dookhan has already served the prison sentence imposed after being convicted of 27 criminal counts. But legal mess she created continues to this day. Prior to this year, authorities had been able to resolve about 20,000 of the total cases. In January, the state’s highest court ruled that sifting through the remaining 20,000 cases would be far too time-consuming. They left it to prosecutors to decide which convictions to dismiss outright. Earlier this week, nearly 95 percent of the remaining convictions were dismissed.
The Lingering Consequences
Were there guilty individuals who benefitted from the mass dismissal of charges in this case? The answer is likely yes. But we should be far more concerned about the conviction of individuals who were either entirely innocent or punished more harshly than their offense would have otherwise called for. These people may have lost jobs or housing or access to college loans. They may have been deported.
The criminal justice system does not fail when the allegedly guilty are exonerated. It fails when the innocent are convicted. And as this case shows, the selfish actions of a single bad actor in the criminal justice system can negatively impact the lives and freedom of tens of thousands of people.