This Week in Government Incompetence That Likely Ruined Lives

Saturday, September 15th, 2012

In Arizona:

Arizona’s child-welfare agency has discovered a computer glitch that officials say kept public records from parents, lawyers and others for more than 15 years, a malfunction that could have led to children being wrongly removed and prevented caregivers from supporting civil claims against the state.

“If a case got to the wrong result because information wasn’t disclosed, that’s a big, big problem,” said Mark Kennedy, who has represented about 400 parents over the past three years. “To me, it’s pretty significant when CPS says we’re going to contact 21,000 lawyers. That’s like saying, ‘Start searching your case files because there may be some problems out there.’ “

In Massachusetts:

The top official at the state laboratory that mishandled drug samples has resigned, and another lab executive has been fired, state law enforcement and health authorities announced Thursday, the latest development in an unfolding scandal.f

The lab officials failed to ­detect obvious signs of problems with a chemist’s work ­involving drug samples from criminal cases, state executives said at a Beacon Hill press conference. They compounded that error by making the “poor decision” to wait six months to alert the state’s public health commissioner once problems were identified, said Dr. JudyAnn Bigby, secretary of health and human services in the Patrick administration . . .

The chemist, who worked at the Jamaica Plain lab from 2003 until she quit in March, handled 60,000 samples, poten­tially imperiling 34,000 criminal cases. Officials have not publicly named the chemist, but authorities familiar with the investigation identified her as Annie Dookhan.

Problems with the chemist were discovered in June 2011, according to state officials, but lab directors did not bring those issues to the attention of Public Health Commissioner John Auerbach until December.

Here’s how we can make this sort of thing less common.

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14 Responses to “This Week in Government Incompetence That Likely Ruined Lives”

  1. #1 |  Lynne | 

    Great article. I like the idea of private labs. Many times the State crime labs “use up” all of the evidence or state that “it was too degraded to test”, but it is difficult to trust them after all of these scandals. We need a more honest system to prevent wrongful convictions from occurring.

  2. #2 |  Ariel | 

    Unfortunately, you can have the same problem with private labs as government labs if they are single contractors. Would you want to lose that contract by pissing off LE too often?

    Better would be multiple private labs with blind samples (no knowledge of the particular case) rotated through each by a percentage allocation. Tracking, if each custodian of the sample does their job, would be easy in this day of software. A custodian that doesn’t do their job should fully suffer the repercussions of not doing so. Of course, I dream…

  3. #3 |  Radley Balko | 

    Unfortunately, you can have the same problem with private labs as government labs if they are single contractors.

    As I mentioned in the article.

    Better would be multiple private labs with blind samples (no knowledge of the particular case) rotated through each by a percentage allocation.

    As I mentioned in the article.

  4. #4 |  Ariel | 


    Sorry, but I was actually responding to the first comment only. I didn’t follow the link because of my below paragraph. Presumptuous yes, wrong no.

    I’ve read your blog for a number of years and have incorporated your ideas into my thinking. I didn’t go to your link, because I would never expect you to deviate from what you have set out so well earlier: Single contract labs are just government labs masquerading as private; and knowing which crime the sample is tied to just invites influence and corruption.

    You’ve actually made a profound difference in my thinking. I’m glad I found your blog, but it was through a long, circuitous route.

    My oddessey started over a child molested in 2005 by a family member, and that side of my family responded in the worst of possible ways (I and my child were expected to suck it up for the family, making me a felon and my child unable to ever speak of it to keep me out of jail), driving me to cut off all contact permanently. I allowed my children the right to know their cousins, uncles and grandparents on that side, but I have no contact. And theirs is controlled.

    I actually hired a lawyer to write an Amicus brief to protect the molester from being charged as an adult. Charging him that way was an affront to my sense of decency, and not because he was a family member. My family thought I hired the lawyer to go after him, a clear disconnect of how the system works.

    I don’t understand our system where you are an adult here, but not there. Where a stupid girl sends a graphic picture to a boy she likes, he sends it on, and they become child pornographers. Shouldn’t she be charged as an adult at 15? We charge 15 year-olds as adults for other crimes, so why not in this circumstance? A point made in frustration of this amoral, even immoral, and certainly illogical system we’ve allowed.

    Anyway, I searched on many subjects circling outward from “child molestation”, found even government stats putting the lie to what we read in the papers about molestation, child abuse, and sex offender registration. Eventually, it lead me to your blog. Oxygen in a CO2 environment. I thank you for the breathes I take.

  5. #5 |  Stephen | 

    Nice article Radley. I guess it was worth the wait. :)

    Everybody, if you haven’t done so, click on that last link.

    The biggest nut punch to me was “The initial investigation found at least 230 cases in which crime lab workers failed to turn over potentially exculpatory evidence, including three cases that resulted in the defendant’s execution.”

  6. #6 |  Juice | 

    As a member of the American Chemical Society I get the sort of weekly magazine, Chemical & Engineering News. This issue the cover story is about the Innocence Project and Forensics. I haven’t read it yet. I just got it in the mail today. Anyway, I though you might like to know that this topic is getting more mainstream.

  7. #7 |  Other Sean | 

    As always, I really love the comments on that HuffPo link. After reading the entire thread, and focusing especially on the remarks of “super users” and people with hundreds of fans, I was able to put together a complete list of the moral priorities of the American progressive left in 2012.

    Here are the relevant portions of that list:

    Priority #1 – Enlarging the public sector and fighting any encroachment against the power of the state (even just perceived encroachments).

    Priority #7 – Taking whatever position seems most clearly opposite to any position ever taken by the Koch Brothers (or any position merely alleged to be so taken).

    Priority #495 – Ending the drug war and reforming a criminal justice system that crushes millions of blacks, hispanics, and poor whites beneath its mercilessly stomping heels.

    (To put this in perspective, you should know – for instance – that Priority #281 turned out to be “Genital piercing on demand”.)

  8. #8 |  Nancy Lebovitz | 

    #6 Juice

    Thanks for the link. I’ve passed it on to Less Wrong.

  9. #9 |  blakenator | 

    Other Sean;
    I’ll give you your list but here are my corollaries for the self styled conservatives who are in power:
    #1. Pretend to reduce the public sector by contracting the functions they like out to connected cronies while vowing to eliminate the functions they find bothersome; and fight any encroachment against the power of the state in the areas they care about in order to use the power of the state to protect favored cronies.
    #495 Ending the drug war and reforming a criminal justice system that delivers billlions of dollars in revenue to connected cronies.
    Sorry, but I am quite cynical about the motives of anyone who is a politician at any level in this country at the moment, with few exceptions. Both sides are on the take, as far as I can tell.
    I totally agree the we have allowed government far too many powers but we, the people, have reached a point where sane argument and a willingness to see the merit in the positions opposite their own has evaporated.

  10. #10 |  Matthew | 

    @9 blakenator

    I take it, then, that you’ll be voting third-party? That you’ll shirk the lesser-of-two-evils argument and endorse a candidate who genuinely represents you? That you’ll doff the bridle of two-party cronyism that reinforces the trends you disavow? If you vote for Obama or Romney, you’re not just part of the problem, you’re willing party to the travesty.

  11. #11 |  Other Sean | 


    See…I have a slightly different list for conservatives:

    Priority #1 – Defend the presidency against any attempt to reduce its power, just in case Ronald Reagan can be brought back to life through science or magic.

    Priority #2 – Prevent Afghanistan from becoming an existential threat to the United States (an existential threat is anyone who wants to hurt us to any degree) and prevent it from acquiring weapons of mass destruction (a category which includes everything from a three-stage hydrogen bomb to a pair of briefs loaded with triacetone triperoxide).

    Priority #197 – Prevent Zimbabwe from becoming an existential threat to the United States and/or acquiring weapons of mass destruction.

    (Looks like just a long list of different countries between #2 and #197.)

    Priority #495 – Cut government spending

    Come to think of it, I didn’t see ending the drug war on the conservative list at all.

  12. #12 |  Onlooker | 

    LOL, bet you didn’t see that coming blakenator.

    And if you haven’t figured it out yet, most who frequent Radley’s page (and the man himself) have no use for the partisan crap. And “a pox on both their houses” could be the slogan ’round here.

  13. #13 |  Blakenator | 

    Quite the contrary, mate, the thread is progressing just as I expected. I have had “The Agitator” on my daily must read list for years and I share most of Balko’s sentiments. Please reread the last two sentences in my post before you decide who I am by your interpretation of a few short words.
    Other Sean;
    I only responded to what you wrote, I am happy to see your list for “conservatives” is similar to what I would author.
    Matthew; I very well may, unfortunately the system is rigged anyway and that is the crux of the problem. Finding politicians who haven’t been bought is difficult and what passes for the media in this country will go on the attack trying to find ways to marginalize them.
    USA…USA…United Scams of America…USA

  14. #14 |  Leon Wolfeson | 

    Ah yes, you can make it “less common” by abolishing standards and selling things to the lowest bidder, making it impossible in most cases to even reliably retest.

    Unless you intend to essentially run the labs anyway, and simply have private companies walk off with a massive profit which will just be added to the taxpayer’s burden.

    @7 – At least mass murder isn’t their first and last priority.