BOSTON (AP) — A justice of the state's highest court agreed on Wednesday to ask the full court to decide two cases in which prosecutors are challenging how lower courts handle thousands of drug convictions jeopardized by what they say was a chemist's misconduct.
The chemist, Annie Dookhan, is accused of faking results and tampering with evidence at a state drug testing lab.
The scandal has thrown the state's judicial system into turmoil as prosecutors and defense attorneys try to deal with thousands of legal challenges to cases in which Dookhan was involved. Authorities say Dookhan tested drugs in about 34,000 cases during her nine years working at a now-closed Department of Public Health lab.
On Wednesday, Supreme Judicial Court Justice Margot Botsford heard arguments from a prosecutor challenging the authority of retired judges appointed as special magistrates to handle the Dookhan cases.
Botsford also heard from defense attorneys who asked the high court to step into the legal mess created by the testing scandal and come up with a "global remedy" to deal with the thousands of convicted drug offenders serving prison sentences in cases in which Dookhan was one of the chemists who performed tests.
Botsford agreed to send the cases of two drug defendants to the full court in May to answer questions from Essex County District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett on the authority of special magistrates. But she said she was reluctant to ask the court to rule on the request for its broader involvement while the state's attorney general and inspector general are conducting investigations into what happened at the lab.
"I do have some thought that there may well be ultimately a need for this court to play some role to find a more global solution than the system currently has in place," Botsford said.
Lawyers for the state's public defender agency and the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts argued that the high court needs to get involved to preserve the constitutional rights of defendants whose convictions have been tainted by the accusations against Dookhan.
Dookhan, of Franklin, admitted faking test results, forging signatures and skipping proper lab procedures, police say. She resigned last March and has pleaded not guilty.
There are thousands of defendants waiting for court hearings on their requests to be released from prison while legal challenges to their convictions make their way through the court system, said Randy Gioia, deputy chief counsel for the Committee for Public Counsel Services. He said they should not have to wait until the state's investigations into the lab scandal are completed and asked the court to conduct hearings to try to come up with a broad solution.
"Justice delayed is justice denied," Gioia said.
In the two cases being sent to the high court, Blodgett is asking the court to clarify whether retired judges appointed as special magistrates to hear the Dookhan cases have the authority to put prison sentences on hold and release defendants on bail while their requests for new trials are pending. Under normal circumstances, a judge first decides whether a defendant is entitled to a new trial and then considers whether that defendant should be released while awaiting that new trial.
Blodgett also is asking the high court to decide whether a special magistrate has the authority to reconsider a decision by a judge to deny a motion to put a sentence on hold and release a defendant on bail.
Blodgett also wants the court to clarify whether a guilty plea by a Dookhan defendant is valid if the process involves a judge and a special magistrate. Botsford took that request under advisement.
ACLU legal director Matthew Segal said after the hearing that he believes the high court should craft a global solution because there are "systemic issues of confusion" in the way the lower courts are handling the cases.
"Right now, people are suffering injury," Segal said. "Right now, people are being forced into guilty pleas if they can't get (sentences put on hold) because it's the only way to get relief before their sentences run out."