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SJC to consider queries related to drug lab

In May, the Supreme Judicial Court will consider questions of legal procedure that have emerged since thousands of convictions were thrown into flux by the state drug lab scandal.

Supreme Judicial Court Justice Margot Botsford on Friday sent three questions about the powers of special magistrates to the full court for review, court documents show.

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The special magistrates are retired Superior Court judges who have been hired by the state to help handle cases related to former state chemist Annie Dookhan, who is accused of faking results at a state drug-testing lab and was charged with mishandling and falsifying drug evidence. Thousands of convictions have been challenged, throwing the state’s judicial system into turmoil.

The first question the SJC will consider centers on whether a special magistrate can stay a sentence while a defendant appeals for a new trial.

The high court will also decide whether a special magistrate can reconsider a defendant’s motion to have his or her sentence temporarily suspended if a Superior Court judge has already denied such a motion.

Botsford additionally tasked the full court with reviewing whether it should rule on the ability of a special magistrate to conduct what is known as a plea colloquy.

A plea colloquy is a discussion with a defendant that helps a judge determine whether the defendant is competent and knows his or her rights before pleading guilty. It is traditionally administered by a judge.

If the SJC finds that this question is within its purview, justices will decide whether a special magistrate can administer the colloquy and report to a judge who will ultimately decide whether to accept the plea.

The state’s public defender agency had also asked Botsford to consider whether the SJC could come up with a wide-ranging solution for cases related to the drug lab scandal.

Botsford ruled that it is too early for the Commonwealth’s high court to seek broad solutions to deal with the cases resulting from the scandal.

Zachary T. Sampson can be reached at zachary.sampson@globe.com.
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