The state’s highest court will consider whether special magistrates can legally free defendants who are seeking new trials based on allegedly tainted drug evidence tied to disgraced former state chemist Annie Dookhan.
In what could have a far-reaching effect on cases throughout the Commonwealth, the Supreme Judicial Court is scheduled to hear oral arguments on the matter in three related cases on Thursday. Two of the arguments center on a pair of defendants in Essex County and the third involves several procedural questions.
The proceedings pit Essex prosecutors, who argue that the magistrates cannot free so-called Dookhan defendants while their motions for new trials are pending, against defense lawyers and the Superior Court.
The defense lawyers and the court insist the magistrates do have that authority because of the extraordinary circumstances surrounding Dookhan, who allegedly falsified or mishandled suspected drug samples during her tenure at the now-shuttered Hinton state lab in Jamaica Plain.
Defense lawyers say in court filings that her alleged misdeeds and disclosures of oversight issues at the lab may have tainted up to 190,000 cases.
According to court records, the Superior Court established special drug lab sessions last year in several affected counties, including Essex, to handle the abundant litigation stemming from the crisis.
But Essex prosecutors contend that the special magistrates who preside over these sessions lack the authority to free defendants while their motions for new trials are pending. State law, however, allows defendants to be freed if such motions are granted, prosecutors said.
They wrote that in an effort to respond to the drug lab crisis, the Superior Court created new sessions that operated outside the normal rules of the criminal court process.
“Despite the crisis,” they said, “this should not be sanctioned: The rules are in place ‘to provide for the just determination of every criminal proceeding.’ ”
Defense and ACLU lawyers, writing on behalf of the two Essex defendants seeking to have their sentences stayed, counter in court filings that Dookhan’s alleged misconduct warrants such a departure from the normal rules and that an order from the SJC last November allows for it.
By the time the order came down, defense lawyers wrote in a filing, “the Hinton Lab crisis . . . portended thousands of postconviction motions” and there was “the probability that defendants would be denied timely relief not because their filings might lack merit, but instead because their challenges could not be adjudicated punctually even when they have merit.”
Lawyers from Attorney General Martha Coakley’s office, writing on behalf of the Superior Court, echoed those concerns in a related filing.
“That injustice [of questionable evidence] would be compounded if defendants waited months or years for their new trial motions to be resolved due to appropriate, if lengthy, investigation into that same wrongdoing,” the filing states. “Because these are extraordinary circumstances, the usual methods cannot apply.”
Bristol prosecutors have filed an amicus brief with the SJC in support of their Essex colleagues who oppose the release of defendants while their bids for new trials are pending.
Dookhan is facing 27 criminal charges related to mishandling or falsifying drug evidence, as part of a massive review of cases in which she served as the analyst.
She has pleaded not guilty.
Already, hundreds offenders have been released after evidence analyzed by Dookhan was questioned.