Leaning forward in her courtroom seat, Melvia Walker-Newton kept her eyes fixed on the television, which showed a feed from the prison where her husband has been serving a drug sentence. In the long line of compromised drug cases now under review in a Boston court, his was next.
“There’s my baby,” she whispered as Robert Newton, 50, walked into the camera’s sight.
A short time later, Newton’s sentence was put on hold, yet another example of the legal fallout from the state drug lab scandal. Annie Dookhan, a former chemist at a now-closed testing center, is accused of falsifying thousands of lab results over nine years, forcing judges to reopen cases in which she played a role. In Suffolk County, 85 sentences have already been stayed.
Christine McEvoy, a judge in Suffolk Superior Court, set Newton’s bail at $200, and his lawyer, Anne Rousseve, asked Walker-Newton and Newton’s sister if they could come up with the money. Not right away, they said, but by the end of the week.
Newton, who had pleaded guilty to distributing cocaine in 2011, would be home soon.
But in many other cases, inmates in the so-called Dookhan cases remained incarcerated on charges unrelated to drugs. Many of these prisoners, once aware that a stayed sentence would not set them free, asked that their punishment remain in place so their jail time would count toward it if their drug conviction is not overturned.
The special court sessions underway in Suffolk for the past week represent the first step in sifting through the impact of the drug lab scandal. A judge is reviewing each Dookhan case to determine whether the prisoner should be freed while his or her case is reviewed.
The proceedings on Monday revealed the magnitude of the legal questions faced by both the judge and the lawyers involved in the cases and the challenge of trying to review so many cases so quickly.
Once these preliminary reviews of potentially affected drug cases are done, the court will hold sessions on the convictions themselves, a process that will probably be more involved. That could begin in a couple of weeks.
Luigi Epifania, 29, , serving a 5-year stretch on a 2011 drug conviction, was hoping to be set free. While McEvoy, with prosecutors’ assent, was willing to suspend his drug sentence, she said that Epifania had also violated the terms of an earlier probation.
“He’d still be incarcerated,” McEvoy said. “The probation matter is unaffected.”
Prosecutors said Epifania had previously been convicted of beating a man with a frying pan during a drug deal and of killing a neighborhood cat, setting its remains on fire, and throwing them through a window.
His lawyer argued that Epifania had “already served substantial time” and sought to have the remainder of the sentence set aside.
But when McEvoy ruled that Epifania would remain incarcerated on the probation violation, his legal team asked that she take no action on his drug case, so the time he would be spending in custody anyway will continue to count toward his drug sentence, just in case.
McEvoy had been scheduled to hear the case of Anthony Thames, who faces murder charges in the 2011 shooting death of Raymond Lamar. But, because Thames, now serving a 5-year prison term for a drug offense, would not have been granted bail even if his drug sentence were stayed, the judge opted to hear other more pressing cases.
Thames had been the target of a manhunt that ended in a trailer park in Texas in September 2011.
Daniel F. Conley, district attorney in Suffolk County, said the Dookhan cases under review in Superior Court involve serious criminals whose release threatens public safety.
“They are in state prison for a reason,” he said. “They are trafficking in large amounts of drugs, and pretty much all of them are defendants who have some level of violence on their record.”
Conley called on the state to provide financial assistance to his office, which has had to devote substantial resources to review affected cases.
Dookhan has pleaded not guilty to two counts of obstruction of justice and to falsifying her academic record. She is free on $10,000 cash bail.
Authorities fear she may have tainted 60,000 drug samples involving 34,000 cases, most of them in Suffolk County.