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SJC asked to free inmates

Annie Dookhan, a former chemist at the Hinton State Laboratory Institute, listened to the judge during her arraignment at Brockton Superior Court in Brockton, Massachusetts January 30, 2013.

Jessica Rinaldi/Reuters

Annie Dookhan, a former chemist at the Hinton State Laboratory Institute, listened to the judge during her arraignment at Brockton Superior Court in Brockton, Massachusetts January 30, 2013.

The American Civil Liberties Union and the state’s public defender agency are asking the state’s highest court to release thousands of people convicted for drug crimes based on evidence tested by former state chemist Annie Dookhan, who has admitted to falsifying results over nine years.

Dookhan is currently under indictment, and the lab where she worked, a Department of Public Health facility at the Hinton Laboratory in Jamaica Plain, has been closed. The Patrick administration has estimated Dookhan’s alleged misdeeds affected 34,000 cases while the ACLU and the Committee on Public Counsel Services say as many as 190,000 cases should be dismissed.

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In court papers filed recently with a single justice of the Supreme Judicial Court, the ACLU and the public defender agency said the Dookhan scandal has created a constitutional crisis that the SJC alone can quickly address, asserting that thousands of men and women are imprisoned or now have criminal histories who should be free or be able to claim they were never convicted of a crime.

“This scandal warrants the presumptive stay of any sentence associated with misconduct at the Hinton lab,’’ ACLU attorneys wrote in support of Hector Milette, an Essex County man convicted of drug charges in 2011. “If ever a situation cried out for extraordinary relief, it is the Hinton lab scandal. The harm involved is a colossal pattern of falsified evidence generated by Dookhan [and quite possibly others] occasioning massive litigation on an unprecedented human and fiscal scale.’’

The Dookhan-related litigation is pending before Justice Margot Botsford,who is expected to decide soon, possibly next week, whether to send the matter to all seven SJC members.

Separately, the public defender agency argued on behalf of Shubar Charles, who was also convicted of drug charges in Essex County, saying his prison sentence should be stayed while the inquiry into Dookhan’s actions in his case and thousands more goes forward.

The SJC must take control of the situation “and mend the faith of the public and the affected litigants, and vanquish the constitutional crisis created by the malfeasance in the Hinton lab,’’ attorneys for the public defender agency wrote.

Both Milette and Charles were prosecuted by Essex District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett’s office, which has asked the SJC to tackle Dookhan litigation, but with a different goal than that of the defense lawyers.

Blodgett wants the court to clarify how much power the retired Superior Court judges, who have been brought out of retirement to handle Dookhan cases as “special masters,” have to decide whether a sentenced inmate should be freed before they complete their prison terms.

“No statute or court rule allows a court to stay the execution of a sentence absent a pending appeal or ruling on a motion for new trial,” Blodgett’s office argued in court papers.

Blodgett’s office also wants the SJC to clearly instruct judges in Dookhan cases to take into account the threat to public safety posed when convicted drug dealers are returned back to the streets before their sentences are served.

“The risk of harm to the public, in general, and to the confidential informant used by the police in the drug buys, in particular, will be significant,’’ Blodgett’s office wrote.

John R. Ellement can be reached at ellement@globe.com.
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