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SJC limits ability of drug defendants to change plea

Former state chemist Annie Dookhan.

David L Ryan/Globe Staff/File

Former state chemist Annie Dookhan.

Defendants who pleaded guilty in certain drug cases involving former state chemist Annie Dookhan can legally presume that her actions affected them, but that alone does not allow convicts to withdraw their plea, the state’s highest court ruled on Wednesday.

In the ruling, the state Supreme Judicial Court found that “if Dookhan signed the drug certificate in a defendant’s case as one of two chemists vouching for the accuracy of the testing” of alleged narcotics, then “her misconduct is deemed to have touched the defendant’s case.”

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However, the court also found that to change their plea, defendants must demonstrate “a reasonable probability” that they would not have pleaded guilty if they had known about Dookhan’s actions.

Dookhan is serving three to five years in state prison for tampering with evidence and perjury, among other crimes.

In Wednesday’s ruling, the SJC found that a lower court judge, in deciding whether to allow one defendant, Rakim D. Scott, to withdraw his guilty plea for drug possession, could consider factors including other circumstantial evidence that prosecutors had to support the charge.

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Wednesday’s ruling, along with several related decisions on the matter from the SJC, drew praise from prosecutors and defense lawyers, but for different reasons.

“It reinforces . . . that every case has to be reviewed on a case-by-case basis,” said Essex District Attorney Jonathan W. Blodgett, president of the Massachusetts District Attorneys Association.

But Amy M. Belger — a lawyer for Scott, the defendant in the main case before the SJC — said in an e-mail that the ruling is a boon to her client and others.

The SJC overturned a lower-court ruling allowing Scott to vacate his guilty plea for drug possession, but said he was entitled to the “conclusive presumption that Dookhan’s misconduct occurred in his case,” and that it was egregious.

Scott can again challenge his initial plea in a lower court.

“The court’s decision . . . serves the ends of justice and begins to restore the people of the Commonwealth’s faith in our justice system,” Belger wrote.

Anthony Benedetti, chief counsel for the state’s public defender agency, said the presumption of Dookhan’s misconduct outlined by the SJC offers “an avenue of relief for thousands of defendants who were convicted on faulty evidence.”

Dookhan was involved in more than 46,000 cases at the former Hinton drug laboratory in Jamaica Plain from 2003 until her resignation in 2012.

A recent report from the state inspector general found roughly 2,300 drug cases in which test results for evidence were inconsistent, and yet the information was never flagged to prosecutors and defense attorneys. Dookhan had been involved in many, but not all, of those cases.

According to the state Trial Court, 362 defendants have challenged the evidence in their cases in Suffolk County, or 39 percent of a statewide total of 933.

Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley said that Wednesday’s SJC rulings wisely overturned lower court decisions allowing Dookhan defendants to automatically withdraw guilty pleas, noting that evidence in drug cases is rarely limited to the actual narcotics.

“There’s packaging, cutting agents, baggies, cash, phone calls, and text messages, and the defendant’s actions before, during, and after the seizure of drug evidence,” Conley said in a statement.

But Benedetti questioned how prosecutors can obtain a conviction in cases that fall under the SJC finding of a presumption of Dookhan’s misconduct.

Conley, however, said that in most Dookhan-related cases in his county, evidence still exists and can be retested and introduced at trial.

Benedetti said that if such retesting is allowed, “there should be an extremely high burden on the prosecution to show that the drugs weren’t tampered with.”

Milton J. Valencia of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Travis Andersen can be reached at tandersen@
globe.com
. Follow him on Twitter @TAGlobe.
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