Lessons from HBO’s The Wire and the Annie Dookhan drug lab controversy

In 2011, the Ohio State Journal of Criminal Law published a mini-symposium on the HBO series The Wire. In her contribution, Susan A. Bandes, research professor at DePaul University School of Law, discussed the common driving force behind every institution, from the drug culture to law enforcement agencies, portrayed on the series: protecting and perpetuating themselves.

This theme, that institutional players’ individual choices are shaped and restricted by the systems in which they operate, emerges early in the first season during the following scene, in which D’Angelo Barksdale, nephew of drug kingpin Avon Barksdale, teaches two young street-level dealers, Bodie and Wallace, how to play chess:

D’Angelo: Now look, check it, it’s simple, it’simple. See this? This the kingpin, a’ight. And he the man. You get the other dude’s king, you got the game. But he trying to get your king too, so you gotta protect it. Now, the king, he move one space any direction he damn choose, ‘cause he the king. Like this, this, this, a’ight? But he ain’t got no hustle. But the rest of these motherfuckers on the team, they got his back. And they run so deep, he really ain’t gotta do shit.
Bodie: Like your uncle.
D’Angelo: Yeah, like my uncle. You see this? This the queen. She smart, she fierce. She move any way she want, as far as she want. And she is the go-get-shit-done piece.
Wallace: Remind me of Stringer.
D’Angelo: And this over here is the castle. Like the stash. It can move like this, and like this.
Wallace: Dog, stash don’t move man.
D’Angelo: C’mon yo, think. How many times we move the stash house this week? Right? And every time we move the stash, we gotta move a little muscle with it, right?
Bodie: True, true, you right. Alright, what about them little baldheaded bitches right there?
D’Angelo: These right here, these are the pawns. They like the soldiers. They move like this, one space forward only. Except when they fight, then it’s like this. And they like the front lines, they be out in the field.
Wallace: So how do you get to be the king?
D’Angelo: It ain’t like that. See, the king stay the king, a’ight? Everything stay who he is. Except for the pawns. Now, if the pawn make it all the way down to the other dude’s side, he get to be queen. And like I said, the queen ain’t no bitch. She got all the moves.
Bodie: A’ight, so if I make it to the other end, I win
D’Angelo: If you catch the other dude’s king and trap it, you win.
Bodie: A’ight, but if I make it to the end, I’m top dog.
D’Angelo: Nah, yo, it ain’t like that. Look, the pawns, man, in the game, they get capped quick. They be out the game early.
Bodie: Unless they some smart-ass pawns.

As Bandes notes, The Wire illustrates this concept of the “rigged chessboard in which the king stays the king” in virtually every institutional context. “Harm is done, day in and day out, by regular people trying to do and keep their jobs.” Justice is sacrificed for the survival of institutions. Pawns, not only in the drug trade but also in police departments, government, media, unions, and school systems, are picked off, “capped quick,” so that the king can stay the king.

“Money trails are not followed. High value targets are not pursued. Whisteblowers are severely disciplined and usually banished. Explorations into root causes are tabled in favor of quick fixes or showy press conferences,” Bandes wrote.

As a Wire enthusiast and Massachusetts criminal attorney, I couldn’t help but think of The Wire‘s lesson on institutional dysfunction, best articulated by Bandes, when news of the Annie Dookhan drug lab scandal broke. For those not familiar with the Dookhan story, Dookhan, a former chemist in the Massachusetts Department of Public Health drug lab located in Jamaica Plain, is accused of deliberately mishandling and contaminating drug evidence, inflating drug weights, altering chain of custody documents, forging colleagues’ signatures, and more. Dookhan worked at the lab for approximately 9 years and tested more than 60,000 samples. She analyzed more than 500 samples per month, whereas an average chemist would have an output of between 50 to 150 samples per month. Supervisors reportedly believed that Dookhan was able to accomplish this by skipping lunch breaks. More recently, a Norfolk County prosecutor resigned after investigations revealed that he and Dookhan exchanged inappropriate and overly-personal e-mails.

Dookhan continues to be characterized as a “rogue chemist” who acted alone, an overachiever motivated by a desire to be liked by superiors, police and prosecutors. This is certainly possible, but I don’t buy it. I think that Dookhan is just the tip of the iceberg, a quick-fix pawn, and that an independent investigation would reveal a much bigger, and a more frightening, picture of institutional failure.

But, for now, the king stays the king.

Contact Attorney Denise Dolan at (617) 336-7250. She has assisted multiple defendants, persons with pending and closed cases, affected by the Dookhan drug lab scandal.

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