Mass. High Court To Consider Drug Lab Case Procedures

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Massachusetts' highest court on Thursday will consider challenges to the process of reviewing the thousands of criminal convictions jeopardized by the state drug lab crisis. Both prosecutors and defense attorneys are asking the high court to provide clarity.

The legal questions before the court involve the process the state set up after closing the Hinton Drug Lab in Jamaica Plain last year. That's when chemist Annie Dookhan was charged with falsifying drug tests. Prosecutors question the authority of the special magistrates overseeing the drug lab court sessions, specifically whether they can release convicted drug dealers before a judge decides on a motion for a new trial.

Essex County District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett points to the case of a man convicted of possessing ammunition and cocaine. The cocaine was tested by Dookhan. When a special magistrate agreed to release the man, Blodgett appealed.

"This is a dangerous person and the Dookhan part of this had nothing to do with the ammunition charges," Blodgett said. "So we argue that it was incorrect to have a stay of execution and have bail posted while the motion for a new trial had not been granted."

Blodgett says putting a sentence on hold — or issuing a stay of execution — before there is a motion for a new trial or an appeal is not typical courtroom procedure.

In his county, there are about 5,700 cases identified as linked to Dookhan, about 50 defendants have been released. While Blodgett acknowledges the state had to move quickly to deal with the unprecedented crisis, he says he has a responsibility to public safety.

"It's sort of become urban myth, in my opinion, that all these individuals are languishing in jail because of Annie Dookhan and it's just drugs only. It's not," Blodgett said. "Most of these cases have accompanying charges of violence. No district attorney in Massachusetts is going to have somebody spend one more day in jail because of a case where Dookhan was primary chemist and the only charges were drug charges. I believe it's my duty and obligation to review these cases one at a time."

But the American Civil Liberties Union says that's a waste of time. Matt Segal, legal director of the Massachusetts ACLU, says if the evidence is tainted, there is no a case.

"It's hard for me to understand how it's a good use of taxpayer dollars to re-litigate these cases one by one to the tune of thousands or tens of thousands of cases," Segal said.

Segal will ask the high court Thursday for the immediate release of two defendants. One was released on bail, but when the special magistrate became concerned about a possible challenge to his authority he ordered the defendant back into custody. Segal and the state's criminal defender agency say the SJC should ultimately devise a more global procedure by which all drug lab cases will be handled.

Anne Goldbach, chief of forensic services for the state's criminal defender agency, submitted a survey of defense attorneys to the high court claiming that each county is handling drug lab cases differently. Goldbach says the state needs one clear way to deal with these cases because the drug lab crisis, now estimated to affect 34,000 cases, will probably get even bigger

"We expect it could be many thousands more, tens of thousands more. The potential could be 190,000 or some small subset of that 190,000," Goldbach said. "It depends on what we learn about the entire lab, but right now the entire lab is still suspect."

Goldbach and Segal point to how the state of Texas dealt with its drug lab crisis — by dismissing the bulk of the cases affected. At this point, that's an unlikely scenario in Massachusetts.

This program aired on May 9, 2013.

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Deborah Becker Host/Reporter
Deborah Becker is a senior correspondent and host at WBUR. Her reporting focuses on mental health, criminal justice and education.



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