Annie Dookhan is Not the Point

March 25th, 2014

It’s been almost three weeks since the release of the Office of the Inspector General’s report on the Hinton drug lab scandal: Investigation of the Drug Laboratory at the William A. Hinton State Laboratory Institute (OIG Report). The report, for the first time, focuses attention on the problems with the Hinton Lab’s systems instead of the “rogue chemist” that has so captivated the media’s attention.

The OIG report simplest finding is perhaps its most important: Management Failed. And because there was no feedback loop independent of management, the problems at the lab were invisible to the outside world.

Stafford Beer coined the phrase: “The purpose of a system is what it does.” (POSIWID) The systems at the Hinton Laboratory produced unreliable results that nonetheless resulted in convictions, imprisonments and foreclosure of opportunities (for jobs and housing among other things) for large numbers of people.

This situation persisted for years despite complaints by staff and obvious discrepancies in drug tests. The system pulled for productivity, not correct results. Given the limited resources that state and federal government have allocated to the criminal justice system, while at the same time exponentially increasing the number of prosecutions, it was entirely predictable that the Hinton Lab scandal would happen.

The New England Innocence Project and our partners across the nation have focused on flawed science, corruption and attorney ineptitude as the drivers behind wrongful convictions. The Hinton Lab scandal illustrates another cause. Overworked bureaucracies measure outcomes in numbers and do not self-correct. They require external structures such as accreditation and protections for whistle-blowers to impose quality assurance. Without them, the system that produces the greatest numbers will continue until an external force (here the take-over of the Hinton Lab by the Massachusetts State Police) forces reforms.

It is tempting to call the Hinton Lab scandal a unique anomaly, to believe that these problems do not exist in other labs across the country. But it wasn’t five years ago that everyone in Massachusetts would have said that such problems didn’t exist here either.

Think about it.

Denise McWilliams, Esq.
NEIP Executive Director