Cop in a lab coat
October 18, 2012
SHE WAS A forensic chemist who put her finger on the scale of justice, continually testifying and confirming that evidence brought to her by police and prosecutors was, in fact, damning proof that a crime was committed beyond a reasonable doubt.
Her work output far exceeded her co-workers in the crime lab and law enforcement officials trusted her to help make their case against defendants. The result was almost always a guilty verdict or plea.
The chemist’s description eerily mirrors that of Annie Dookhan, the woman at the center of a burgeoning drug lab scandal in Massachusetts. But the chemist is actually a fictional character from a 2001 episode of Law & Order, the long-running TV show that dramatizes cases “ripped from the headlines.”
Suffolk County District Attorney Daniel Conley said last week that he and other law enforcement officials in Massachusetts have never seen anything like the Dookhan case. “It’s unprecedented,” he said. But similar cases have cropped up around the country. The TV episode, entitled “Myth of Fingerprints,” was actually based on a real-life case in Oklahoma City involving Joyce Gilchrist, a forensic scientist who regularly doctored test results to give prosecutors what they needed in court.
Gilchrist, who was fired but never charged with a crime, was involved in more than 3,000 cases, including 23 where defendants received the death penalty and 11 were executed. Fraudulent evidence was introduced in at least one of the cases that resulted in an execution.
In the Law & Order episode, police investigating a murder come across information that appears to cast doubt on a conviction in a previous murder. Investigators discover the evidence in that previous murder was certified by the lab director, a character named Lisa Russo. After further investigation, the TV prosecutors discover Russo’s work routinely favored the prosecution and most of the time was flawed. Russo is described on the TV show as “a cop in a lab coat.” She is eventually charged with manslaughter because one of the men her testimony wrongly convicted was killed in prison.
Terri Kopp, a former producer for Law & Order who wrote the episode, says she not only used the Gilchrist case as inspiration but drew from her experience as a former New York public defender, a position in which she challenged lab test results on behalf of a number of clients.
"I don’t think the episode would have worked if I wasn’t a public defender,” says Kopp, a former Mashpee resident who is admitted to the bar in Massachusetts and New York. “I was sort of passionate about the issue and I think it showed.”
Kopp says she was back in Massachusetts during the summer visiting family when word of the Dookhan case first broke. She says the news made her think back to the episode and her own legal experience.
Dookhan allegedly made fraudulent reports on a number of cases in which she either analyzed seized drugs or confirmed findings by other chemists. In her 10 years in the state lab, Dookhan played a role in analyzing more than 64,000 drug samples from nearly 34,000 cases. The state’s courts have already begun the process of hearing hundreds of appeals by defendants who believe they were wrongly convicted because of her involvement. Many are having their sentences stayed and are being released, either on personal recognizance or makeable bail.
There were other similarities between the Dookhan case and the Law & Order case. In the episode, police Lt. Anita Van Buren finds it hard to believe Russo could have tinkered with the evidence. “I have known Lisa Russo a long time and she has always been good people and the best in the lab,” said Van Buren.
Similarly, a State Police report on Dookhan found that Elizabeth O’Brien, Dookhan’s supervisor at the Hinton State Laboratory, felt the chemist was “a hard worker, focused, efficient, reliable and technologically strong. . .O’Brien believed that Dookhan was a top-notch chemist.”
Kopp says she believes lab misconduct has resulted in many wrongful convictions across the country. “My understanding is that this is a real problem,” she says. “I don’t think this is an isolated incident at all. The defense bar, I don’t think, has done a very good job of challenging this stuff.”
If Kopp was appearing in her own episode of Law & Order, the screen would fade to black after her comment and the audience would hear the show’s classic scene-changing sound, which is nicknamed the Doink Doink or the Chung Chung. Listen to it here.