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Mass. High Court Expected To Hear Drug Lab Appeal Case In April

Ex-chemist Annie Dookhan leaves Suffolk Superior Court after being arraigned Dec. 20, 2012. (Joe Spurr/WBUR)

Annie Dookhan leaves Suffolk Superior Court after being arraigned Dec. 20, 2012. (Joe Spurr/WBUR)

BOSTON — The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court is expected to review a case this spring that challenges the way the state is handling criminal cases related to the drug lab crisis.

During a conference call this week, Justice Margot Botsford urged prosecutors and defense attorneys to expedite their motions so the seven-member court can review them in April.

“I really feel that we’ve got to get this stuff resolved ASAP,” Botsford said. “That means you’ve got to file it. … I’d like to reserve and report it, and I’d like to do it as quickly as possible, and get it heard as quickly as possible.”

Tuesday’s emergency telephone conference was held to discuss a motion filed by Essex County prosecutors last week asking the high court to stay the potential release of a defendant whose case involved drugs tested by former state chemist Annie Dookhan. Dookhan has been charged with manipulating drug evidence while testing tens of thousands of drug samples from 2003 to 2012 at the now-closed Hinton lab in Jamaica Plain.

Prosecutors question whether a magistrate, presiding over a special drug lab court session convened to review cases possibly affected by Dookhan, has the authority to stay a defendant’s sentence or vacate a plea agreement while a motion for a new trial is pending.

In their filing (PDF), prosecutors claimed no other avenue of action in order to address “substantial claims of irremediable error, or repeated or systematic misapplication of the law.”

Carrie Kimball-Monahan, a spokeswoman for Essex County District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett, says prosecutors want the high court to take up this particular case because they believe the defendant’s release would pose a risk to public safety.

“This defendant’s record includes some very violent offenses in addition to the drug charges,” Kimball-Monahan said.

The Essex County filing references firearm offenses including defendant Shubar Charles pleading guilty to holding a gun to the face of a former girlfriend, as well as a history of defaults.

On Oct. 18, 2010, Charles had pleaded guilty to charges of possession of ammunition and possession and distribution of a Class B substance, according to court documents that also indicate Dookhan was the primary chemist in the case. As part of a plea agreement, Charles, a felon with prior convictions, was sentenced to serve concurrent four-to-seven-year prison terms on the drug charges and a concurrent two-year term for the ammunition charge.

Charles filed a motion for a new trial in December 2012, and on Jan. 31, 2013, Special Magistrate John Cratsley granted a motion to stay Charles’ sentence pending a new trial, under conditions including a $5,000 cash bail, residing with his brother, abiding a 10-6 curfew, submitting to GPS monitoring, and reporting weekly to probation.

The state appealed to Superior Court Judge John Lu. Lu, persuaded that Charles would not have pleaded guilty but for the drugs in his pocket that were tested by Dookhan, and noting the defendant had served a portion of his sentence, upheld Cratsley’s stay — with additional conditions on his release.

Justice Botsford and lawyers agreed during the conference call on Tuesday that the Superior Court should be added as a party to the case. They also acknowledged that the Attorney General’s Office has also been notified, which could mean that a lawyer from that office may represent Superior Court as a defendant.

Christopher Loh, a press contact at the Attorney General’s Office, offered no comment Thursday afternoon. A representative of the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office, which is said to be ramping up their own appeal to the Supreme Judicial Court, did not return calls as of Thursday afternoon.

Chandler Matson, a Boston defense attorney representing several clients in Middlesex and Suffolk counties whose cases are linked to Dookhan, weighed in on the potential impact of a Supreme Judicial Court ruling:

If the end result is that the special magistrate did not have jurisdiction to issue a stay of execution of sentence, that would mean a very large portion of individuals will end up serving much lengthier sentences in cases that inevitably are going to be dismissed.

It would put a person back in prison with no mechanism to let them out on bail. Unless the motion for a stay is granted, there is no bail issue. You’d have to start the process all over again.

Listen to a recording of Tuesday’s conference call with Justice Botsford:

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