BOSTON (AP) — Justices of Massachusetts' highest court heard arguments Thursday on whether special magistrates who are trying to unburden trial courts of a flood of drug cases tainted by a state laboratory scandal may release convicts on bail before they're granted new trials.
Special "drug lab" court sessions began after authorities shut down Hinton state lab in Boston last summer following allegations that former chemist Annie Dookhan faked test results and tampered with evidence in narcotics cases.
Dookhan, 35, of Franklin, has pleaded not guilty to perjury, obstruction of justice and other charges following a 27-count grand jury indictment stemming from cases in six counties. Authorities have said Dookhan tested more than 60,000 drug samples involving 34,000 defendants during her nine years at the lab.
Since then, dozens of defendants whose cases involved evidence that Dookhan handled have been freed while their new trial motions are pending.
But Essex County District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett is challenging whether the special magistrates, all retired Superior Court judges, may put sentences on hold and release drug convicts on bail before decisions on whether they'll get new trials.
Typically, a judge first decides whether a defendant should get a new trial and then considers whether that person should be free in the meantime.
Blodgett's office also is asking the high court to decide whether a special magistrate has the authority to reconsider a decision by a judge to deny a motion to put a sentence on hold and release a defendant on bail. And the district attorney wants the court to clarify whether a guilty plea by a so-called Dookhan defendant is valid if the process involves a judge and a special magistrate.
"The rules of criminal procedure are not being followed," Essex Assistant District Attorney Ron DeRosa told the seven judges of the Supreme Judicial Court.
But lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts and the state's public defender agency, Committee for Public Counsel Services, argued that the thousands of defendants whose cases are caught up in the crisis deserve immediate relief.
"Defendants lost their liberty on account of this fraud," CPCS attorney Beth Eisenberg told the justices.
The agencies made their legal arguments on behalf of two drug convicts from Essex County cases who are seeking release from custody.
ACLU lawyer Matthew Segal asked the justices to affirm the authority of the special magistrates, saying defendants are bearing a burden caused by misconduct at the lab.
In a third related case, Assistant Attorney General Jennifer Miller argued on behalf of the Massachusetts Superior Court system, saying use of special magistrates is an effort by the court "to address these cases in a timely way and in an unchaotic way."
She said the lab scandal set up an unprecedented problem in the criminal justice system, and that inmates need a mechanism to come forward and ask for release.
A court spokeswoman said the justices will issue a ruling within 130 days.