Sonja Farak, a state forensic chemist in Massachusetts, was minutes away from testifying in a drug case in 2013 when attorneys learned she was about to be arrested on charges of tampering with evidence and stealing drugs from her workplace. Prosecutors stopped her from taking the stand, and the case was dismissed, the Christian Science Monitor reports. A judge expressed dismay at the damage the chemist's conduct may have done to “dozens, hundreds” of other cases where she did testify. The scope of the damage actually may be in the tens of thousands, not the hundreds, according to newly public documents.
For some experts, this development is just the latest illustration of flaws in forensic laboratories, embarrassing state prosecutors and haunting drug convicts. Critics of the labs have called for significant “upstream changes” to the process. “The longer you ignore the problem, the greater the problem becomes, and that's what [lab] administrators nationally must learn,” says Steven Benjamin, a defense attorney in Richmond, Va. Drug labs can take concrete steps to minimize the frequency and scale of scandals, he says. Lab administrators must not only increase oversight but also make it easier for lab employees to report possible errors in their work or in a colleague's. “Too many labs across the country are too fearful of acknowledging error,” he says. “They act as if they don't want to hear that mistakes are being made.” He adds, “Too many forensic laboratories regard themselves as law enforcement agencies or an arm of the prosecution.”