Credit: J.-H. Janßen

Here We Go Again? The Braintree Police Evidence Room Scandal

September 21, 2016

Last week, an independent audit of the Braintree Police Department’s evidence room confirmed that large quantities of drugs, weapons, and cash had gone missing over a period of years. After being confronted with questions about the missing items last May, the officer in charge of maintaining the room—Susan Zopatti—committed suicide.   

This is not the first scandal in the Commonwealth involving improprieties in a police department evidence room. Former Brockton Police Chief Richard Sproules stole cocaine and money from his department’s evidence room in the late 1980s. More recently, scandals surfaced at two state crime labs. News broke in 2012 that Annie Dookhan, a forensic analyst at the crime lab in Jamaica Plain, had repeatedly mishandled drug samples and fabricated test results. In 2014, another forensic analyst—Sonja Farak—admitted to tampering with evidence, stealing drugs, and using a range of narcotics during an eight-year stint in the Amherst crime lab. 

These incidents could be seen as idiosyncratic affairs. They involved different people operating in different locations. Some concerned state employees entrusted with testing the evidence, while others implicated city workers who were supposed to safeguard the property. Drug addiction played a role in some instances but the motive remains less clear in others. Even so, revelations about widespread misconduct by government workers, especially the cluster of scandals since 2012, signals the possibility of a more systemic problem. This in turn prompts the key underlying question: What can be done to prevent future scandals?

For one thing, we could do a better job of monitoring crime labs and evidence rooms. We could beef up screening procedures for employees in charge of evidence collection, retention, and testing. We could conduct random audits of facilities on a frequent basis. And we could even outsource evidence maintenance and testing responsibilities to private entities, or at least truly “independent” organizations, which might be less vested in the outcome of criminal cases than many police officers and forensic scientists seem to be. 

But we also need to motivate supervisors to catch wayward employees before situations spiral out of control. Those within an organization are often better-positioned to detect wrongdoing than even the most probing and persistent set of outside eyes. That means crafting incentives for supervisors to be more vigilant. Perhaps the best way to do this is to dismiss every case affected by one of these scandals. If the enormous drug bust that your most valued detectives worked so hard to pull off is no longer proceeding to trial, that will cause dissension in the ranks and spur police department leaders to more closely monitor what’s happening in the evidence room. Likewise, if county and state prosecutors can no longer pursue cases tainted by a state crime lab scandal, they will probably pressure the lab (and the legislature) to provide greater supervision of forensic analysts.

Norfolk county prosecutors have already dismissed at least 15 cases affected by the Braintree evidence room fiasco, with many more presumably in the offing. As noble as this is, a piecemeal approach is not bold enough. The chain of custody for all of the evidence held in the Braintree evidence room during the pertinent time period is now in doubt, so why not do the right thing—drop every pending case and pursue reversal of convictions already obtained? In November, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts will consider a similar question in the context of the Dookhan saga, weighing whether to offer a “global remedy” by vacating all 24,000 affected convictions or allow for a case-by-case approach in which prosecutors would notify each defendant about their right to a new trial and then assess the merits of each case individually after a defendant exercises that right. 

I am in favor of a global remedy in these instances. Dismissing all cases potentially affected by an evidence room or crime lab scandal is equitable and efficient. It also signals to government leaders that they should keep their houses in order or face the consequences where it matters most: their cases.

Daniel Medwed is a professor of law at Northeastern University and a legal analyst for WGBH News.

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