Mass. high court rules that special magistrates can’t free convicts affected by drug lab scandal

The state’s highest court has ruled that special magistrates appointed by the state courts do not have the authority to free convicts who claim that their cases were tainted by the state drug lab scandal.

“A special magistrate ... does not have such authority,” the Supreme Judicial Court said in a ruling today.

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As of March, the magistrates had conducted more than 900 hearings. In a “substantial number” of those cases, the defendants sought to stay the execution of their sentences, the court said.

At the same time, the court affirmed in a unanimous opinion written by Justice Francis X. Spina that judges do have the power to release the convicts.

Matthew Segal, legal director for the ACLU of Massachusetts, said the decision marked a “complete rejection” of the Essex County district attorney’s office attempt to challenge the special legal framework set up to handle cases affected by the scandal.

The court ruled that “exceptional circumstances” allowed judges to stay sentences in the cases.

“Given the ongoing investigation of misconduct at the Hinton drug lab and the uncertainty about when such investigation will be completed, the interest of justice is not served by the continued imprisonment of a defendant who may be entitled to a new trial,” the ruling stated.

Segal said he hoped the ruling would prompt judges to toss convictions that may have been won with tainted evidence.

“My hope is that courts will look at this opinion and see reasons for granting new trials,” he said.

Prosecutors were reviewing the decision this morning.

Essex County prosecutors had argued that the magistrates could not free the defendants while their motions for new trials were pending.

Defense lawyers and the Superior Court had insisted that the magistrates had the power because of the extraordinary problems raised by the drug lab scandal. Former state chemist Annie Dookhan allegedly falsified or mishandled thousands of suspected drug samples during her tenure at a now-shuttered state lab in Jamaica Plain, which has thrown tens of thousands of cases into doubt.

The court said special magistrates did not have the authority to release convicts who sought new trials, but “we conclude that they are empowered to make proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law on a motion to stay the execution of sentence. Those findings and conclusions, in turn, shall be reviewed by a judge, who will make the ultimate decision whether to allow or deny the motion to stay.”

The court said it was within judges’ power to release the convicts. “A judge has the inherent power to stay sentences for “exceptional reasons permitted by law” and the Dookhan cases posed “exceptional circumstances,” the court said.

“The magnitude of the allegations of serious and far-reaching misconduct by Dookhan at the Hinton drug lab cannot be overstated. The alleged misconduct may have compromised thousands of cases,” the court said.

“Given the ongoing investigation of misconduct at the Hinton drug lab and the uncertainty about when such investigation will be completed, the interest of justice is not served by the continued imprisonment of a defendant who may be entitled to a new trial,” the court said.