The state’s highest court has ruled that judges have the authority to stay the sentences of so-called Dookhan defendants who are seeking new trials, upholding the legal framework created to review hundreds of cases tied to the state drug lab scandal.
In a decision issued Monday, the Supreme Judicial Court ruled that the “exceptional circumstances” surrounding convictions tied to Annie Dookhan, the former state chemist who allegedly falsified suspected drug samples, gave Superior Court judges the power to free defendants who are challenging their convictions.
“The allegations of misconduct at the Hinton drug lab have given rise to serious concerns about defendants who may be incarcerated as a consequence of tainted convictions,” the ruling stated. “Thus, a defendant’s motion to stay the execution of his sentence should be decided in an expeditious manner.”
While largely procedural, the decision highlighted the swirl of legal questions surrounding Dookhan-related cases, which have flooded the judicial system and led to the release of hundreds of defendants, more than 300 from state prisons and more from county facilities.
Last fall, Essex County prosecutors contested motions to stay sentences in more than 50 cases involving allegedly tainted drug evidence, contending that the judge lacked the authority to stay sentences in the absence of a pending appeal.
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