Mass. High Court: Judges, Not Magistrates, Can Release Lab Crisis Inmates
BOSTON — The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has ruled that judges, not special magistrates, have the power to release inmates from custody because of the drug lab crisis. It’s just one of the issues the high court is considering as the state tries to deal with as many as 34,000 criminal cases potentially compromised after former chemist Annie Dookhan was charged with falsifying drug tests.
The special magistrates were assigned by the state to review cases linked to Dookhan. So far they have held 900 hearings in several counties. In its ruling, the high court said that in “a substantial number” of those hearings, defendants sought a stay of execution of their sentences. As of this month, 337 inmates have been released from state prisons because their cases were linked to Dookhan.
The challenge to the state’s system for legally dealing with Dookhan cases came from Essex District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett. His office argued that the courts could not release inmates while their motions for new trials were pending. Nevertheless, his office released a statement praising the ruling:
I am pleased with the Court’s decision as it clarifies the procedures of the Superior Court drug lab sessions and defines the powers and duties of the Special Magistrates. As the plaintiff in this matter, our overriding concern was the possibility of re-litigating Dookhan drug lab cases for a third time. This would have stretched the already limited resources of all the District Attorney’s Offices.
In Essex County, 15 defendants have been released and three have been re-arrested.
The American Civil Liberties Union has argued that the state cannot continue to incarcerate defendants whose cases are based on possibly tainted evidence.
Matthew Segal, legal services director for the Massachusetts chapter of the ACLU, hopes the ruling will help resolve some of the questions about the legal framework the state set up to handle cases in which the evidence was tested at the now-closed Hinton Lab in Jamaica Plain.
“The ruling is certainly a victory, in my opinion,” Segal said. “But more importantly it’s a defeat for the Essex County district attorney, which was trying to stop the procedures being used in Superior Court. Essentially what this decision does is ratify the procedure that has been in place.”
It’s not clear if any inmates were released based solely on the opinion of a special magistrate and without a judge’s oversight. Legal analysts say in most cases, a judge reviews the recommendations from a special magistrate and decides whether to release a defendant on bail.
Anne Goldbach — forensic services director with the state’s public defender agency, which is handling the majority of drug lab cases — says her office is not aware of any inmate being released by a special magistrate alone.
“I think you’re going to see defense attorneys as well as prosecutors looking at those cases where individuals have received these stays of execution to determine whether or not there were any times where only a special magistrate issued the order for a stay,” Goldbach said.
The ruling is just one in a series of advisories expected from the high court about how the state should handle what some say is the biggest crisis ever to hit the Massachusetts criminal justice system.
Michael O’Keefe, president of the Massachusetts District Attorneys Association, called Monday’s ruling “housekeeping” but said it is necessary to clarify the role of the special magistrates. He says more significant rulings are expected in October, when the SJC takes up legal questions such as whether a guilty plea stands, regardless of the drug evidence.
“If, after a guilty plea, something is amiss with the testing, does that obviate a plea where a defendant has already agreed that the substance he had was heroin or cocaine or whatever?” O’Keefe said. “That’s going to be a significant SJC decision.”
Also significant will be a report from the state inspector general, who for months has been reviewing all operations at the Hinton Lab. Some lawyers estimate that if the inspector general finds that the problems at the lab were larger than just one chemist, tens of thousands of more criminal convictions would be thrown into question.