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Mass. high court asked to rule on drug lab scandal

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DENISE LAVOIE | March 6, 2013 07:02 PM EST | AP

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BOSTON — The highest court in Massachusetts is being asked to step in to help manage a state drug lab scandal that threatens to derail thousands of criminal cases.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts is asking the Supreme Judicial Court to find that all defendants whose cases were handled by former state chemist Annie Dookhan have a presumptive right to have their sentences put on hold while motions for new trials are pending. One of the justices will decide whether to refer the ACLU request on to the full court.

Dookhan, 35, has pleaded not guilty to obstruction of justice and other charges for allegedly faking test results and tampering with evidence at the now-closed Hinton State Laboratory Institute in Boston.

The Supreme Judicial Court is scheduled to hear two cases next month in which Essex County prosecutors are asking the court to clarify whether judges or special magistrates appointed to handle Dookhan cases have the right to put a defendant's sentence on hold and release him from jail before his motion for a new trial is decided.

Prosecutors from District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett's office argue that normally, judges are required to decide whether a defendant is entitled to a new trial before ruling on a request to put a sentence on hold and to release a defendant while awaiting the new trial.

"What we're doing is seeking clarification as to procedures set up by the Superior Court for these cases," said Carrie Kimball Monahan, a spokeswoman for Blodgett.

"This Hinton lab case is unprecedented," she said. "No other defendant is entitled to seek a stay of execution of sentence pending a ruling on a new trial motion, and therefore we are asking the SJC if that is permissible."

The ACLU, which is representing both defendants in the two cases to be heard by the SJC, has asked Justice Margot Botsford to ask the high court to answer broader questions about how the lower courts have handled the Dookhan cases since the alleged misconduct became public in August. Botsford is expected to make a decision within the next week, the ACLU said.

"We think there should be a presumption that the sentences in these cases be stayed and a presumption that the people affected will get new trials," said Matthew Segal, the ACLU's legal director.

In many cases, magistrates appointed to hear the Dookhan cases have agreed to place sentences on hold and have released defendants on bail while their motions for new trials make their way through the court system.

But Blodgett has challenged that procedure and argues that defendants Shubar Charles and Hector Milette should continue serving their sentences until their new trial motions are decided.

The ACLU is asking for the SJC to get involved in the process and offer guidance to the lower courts on how to handle the large volume of cases being challenged because of Dookhan's alleged actions.

While state officials estimate that Dookhan worked on more than 34,000 cases during her nine years at the lab, the state's public defender agency estimates that thousands more cases handled by other chemists could be affected because an investigation showed problems with oversight, management and protocols at the lab.

"The sheer volume of the scandal is affecting the due process rights of people waiting in a line of thousands to get hearings," Segal said.