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Drug defendant retried on high court’s order is acquitted

A defense lawyer for Luis Melendez-Diaz said that “it was a case that really seemed to be about guilt by association.’ A defense lawyer for Luis Melendez-Diaz said that “it was a case that really seemed to be about guilt by association.’
By Martin Finucane
Globe Staff / February 11, 2011

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A Jamaica Plain man has been acquitted in a retrial of a cocaine trafficking case that went to the US Supreme Court and resulted in a landmark decision affecting evidence in criminal trials around the country.

A jury found Luis Melendez-Diaz, 32, not guilty yesterday in Suffolk Superior Court.

Melendez-Diaz’s appeal of his 2004 cocaine trafficking conviction led to a ruling by the Supreme Court in 2009 that the US Constitution’s Sixth Amendment guarantees defendants in criminal cases the right to confront forensic experts in court.

The ruling invalidated a Massachusetts law that allowed prosecutors to present forensic experts’ reports as evidence without giving defendants a chance to cross-examine them.

During Melendez-Diaz’s retrial, prosecutors followed the new regime laid out by the high court. On Wednesday, they called to the stand a chemist from the state Department of Public Health who testified that the substance allegedly found in the back seat of a police cruiser with Melendez-Diaz and two other men in 2001 had tested positive for cocaine.

Margaret Fox, defense lawyer for Melendez-Diaz, said the verdict was “an enormous relief.’’

“It was a case that really seemed to be about guilt by association,’’ she said. “He’s very thankful he was given a second trial and that the jury got it right.’’

Jake Wark, a spokesman for Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley, said that time had worked against the prosecution.

“We’re 10 years out from the original incident, and the passage of so much time only makes a case tougher to try,’’ he said.

While Melendez-Diaz was acquitted yesterday, he is still serving a 10-year sentence for drug trafficking in Plymouth County, Wark said.

In the original case, Melendez and the two other men were arrested in Dorchester and placed in the back of a police cruiser. Officers allegedly noticed that the men were fidgeting on the way to the police station. They searched the car and found 19 bags of a white substance.

Department of Public Health lab technicians determined the substance contained cocaine, and three certificates of analysis were submitted at the first trial.

Melendez-Diaz appealed unsuccessfully to the state Appeals Court; the Supreme Judicial Court declined to hear the case, and he went to the Supreme Court.

Brian R. Ballou of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Martin Finucane can be reached at mfinucane@globe.com.