By Hannah Riley
There have been 51 official exonerations in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and many more convictions have been overturned and new trials set. Today, the number of overturned convictions is expected to grow – by upwards of 22,000.
Annie Dookhan was a lab chemist at the state crime lab in Hinton, Massachusetts. In 2012, she admitted to falsifying the results of drug tests over the course of her nine year tenure at the lab, resulting in tens of thousands of compromised convictions. In more than one way, the Dookhan scandal shines a light on our imperfect system. Some will attempt to minimize the damage done by a rogue chemist by brushing her off as an anomaly; one bad actor in an otherwise functional system. What the case highlights — along with the need for improved forensic oversight in the Commonwealth — is how reliant our system is on guilty pleas.
For most of us, the concept of pleading guilty to a crime you didn’t commit seems impossible to comprehend. We assume that the innocent nearly always have a chance to argue their case before a jury of their peers; a chance to exercise their constitutional right to trial. The reality is that our system is nearly entirely dependent on plea deals, making trials a rarity. This inevitably results in some number of innocent people pleading guilty to crimes they didn't commit: a phenomenon which leaves the real perpetrators free to commit more crimes, and serves to create a mere illusion of justice in the United States.
Despite what’s depicted in high-profile trials and the majority of daytime TV, the odds of a criminal case actually going to trial are remarkably low. Roughly 97% of federal convictions and 94% of state convictions are the results of guilty pleas.
The trials that we tend to hear about are the results of an agonizing decision for the defendant. There are powerful incentives for people to plead guilty, even if they are, in fact, innocent. When faced with charges, told there is enough evidence to convict, and warned of all the potential consequences — including loss of legal status for immigrants, housing, family, and freedom — the pressure is often too much for people to choose a trial. This is true even when the evidence the prosecution is relying on is tainted, as it was in Dookhan’s cases. One defendant pled guilty to cocaine possession before the drugs were even tested. Two months after they were sent to prison, Dookhan performed the actual test. The results of the analysis? Negative for controlled substances.
A plea deal offered by a prosecutor is often far more appealing than the prospect of pre-trial detention of indeterminate length, followed by a trial that has the potential to send you away for a long time (and/or bankrupt you).
In New England, there have been 4 documented exonerations of innocent people who initially pled guilty, according to the National Registry of Exonerations. If that sounds like a low number, it’s because it is. Those cases represent the tip of the iceberg, and they are the lucky ones: the phenomenon is much worse at the less serious end of the sentencing spectrum, in misdemeanor courts where almost every defendant pleads guilty.
In 2015, after a Supreme Judicial Court decision surrounding the Dookhan cases, the Suffolk County District Attorney’s spokesperson told the Globe: “The sliver of cases that will be affected by this decision is a sliver of the already small number of cases that went to trial.” He went on to tell a Slate reporter that by his estimation, less than 5% of the over 8,000 convictions tainted by Dookhan in Suffolk County went to trial. This is telling. The prosecution often claims that most cases end with a guilty plea because the defendant is guilty. In fact, guilty pleas are frequently entered because the evidence against the defendant may simply seem strong.
The fact that the vast majority of Suffolk’s Dookhan cases were resolved in a deal between the prosecutor and the defense attorneys is part of a broader phenomenon that is generally mysterious to the public. The promise of reduced charges in exchange for a plea is presented to both the guilty and the innocent, setting the goal to the illusion of justice, instead of the actual attainment of it. The lack of available resources in the system incentivizes a culture of innocent people pleading out. In order to fully address wrongful convictions, we need to work towards changing this culture.
The Dookhan case is embarrassing for the Commonwealth for more than one reason — but it should serve as a valuable reminder that our system isn’t functioning the way that the Constitution envisioned: “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial.”