Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court justice to hear drug lab cases
BOSTON (AP) — A single justice of the highest court in Massachusetts is set to hear three cases that could affect thousands of drug convictions being challenged because of a scandal at a drug-testing lab. Chemist Annie Dookhan has been accused of faking test results and tampering with evidence in drug cases. She has pleaded not guilty to perjury, obstruction of justice and other charges related to her alleged misconduct while she worked at a now-closed Department of Public Health lab.
Supreme Judicial Court Justice Margot Botsford has scheduled a hearing Wednesday to hear from Essex County prosecutors who question whether retired judges appointed as special magistrates to hear the Dookhan cases have the authority to put sentences on hold and release convicted drug dealers while their new trial motions are pending.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts and public defenders argue that drug defendants whose cases were handled by Dookhan have a “presumptive right” to be released while their legal challenges are pending.
Botsford will decide whether to send one or more of the cases to the full court.
Essex County District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett argues that under normal circumstances judges are required to decide whether a defendant is entitled to a new trial before ruling on a request to put a sentence on hold and release a defendant on bail while awaiting the new trial.
The ACLU has asked Botsford to ask the full court to answer broader questions about how the lower courts have handled the Dookhan cases since the alleged misconduct became public in August.
ACLU Legal Director Matthew Segal declined to discuss the cases before Wednesday’s hearing. Last week, Segal said the ACLU believes “there should be a presumption that the sentences in these cases be stayed and a presumption that the people affected will get new trials.”
Dozens of defendants in cases handled by Dookhan have already been released on bail while their new trial motions are pending.
But Blodgett is challenging that procedure. He argues that defendants Shubar Charles and Hector Milette should continue serving their sentences until their new trial motions are decided.
The ACLU wants the high court to offer guidance to the lower courts on how to handle the large volume of cases being challenged.
State officials estimate that Dookhan worked on more than 34,000 cases during her nine years at the lab. But the state’s public defender agency say thousands more cases could be tainted because an investigation showed widespread problems with oversight, management and protocols at the lab.