An air of normality is settling in to the extraordinary business of setting convicted drug dealers free as Suffolk County courts deal with the fallout from the State Drug Lab scandal.
On Monday Suffolk County Superior Court Judge Christine McEvoy heard from convict after convict whose cases may have been tainted by disgraced chemist Annie Dookhan.
Through the morning session, about 10 convicts had their sentences "stayed." That means they can provisionally go free provided they meet any bail requirements and aren't serving time for offenses unconnected to Dookhan. She's accused of tainting drug evidence in cases involving up to 34,000 defendants during her nine years as an analyst at the State Drug Lab in Jamaica Plain.
On Monday, convicts from the prison in Norfolk appeared in the Boston court via a live video feed. Over the next three weeks, similar sessions will be held using feeds from prisons around the state. Estimates keep rising on the number of incarcerated people potentially affected by what prosecutors call a "disaster."
How it works
The details change from case to case, but here's an outline of what happens. In italic is an example from this morning's court session, in which Gregory Niles, 42, of Boston, had his sentence put on hold.
The defense attorney seeks what is in legalese called "a motion to stay the execution of sentence." The judge goes over the sentence or sentences the convict is serving.
- Example: Two-three years being served concurrently (i.e. at the same time) for drug and gun convictions
The judge describes what is known about whether Dookhan handled evidence in the case.
- Example: Dookhan's signature appeared as an assistant analyst for cocaine allegedly connected to the defendant.
The judge determines how much time the convict has already served.
- Example: The sentence began on Jan. 27, 2011
The state, represented by an assistant district attorney, either opposes the motion or consents to it. For instance, when the convict has only one drug sentence and it is clearly tied to evidence handled by Dookhan, the state would often choose not to oppose. But if the defendant has other convictions that don't involve Dookhan, especially ones involving guns or violence, the state would often argue against the motion. The defense attorney and prosecutor get to argue their points.
- Example: The assistant district attorney opposes the motion, noting that the man's history includes 12 defaults (i.e. not showing up for court), his "proclivity for firearms" and convictions for threats. It become clear as they argue that the defendant has served his two years on the gun cases.
The judge rules on whether to allow the motion to stay (i.e. release the prisoner.)
- Example: The judge allows the stay of the rest of the sentence because he is done with the time related to the gun charges.
If the judge rules the convict can be let go, then there's a process of setting bail, if any.
- Example: The state asked for $10,000 cash bail. The defense attorney said the 42-year-old man has three children (20, 15 and 7) and has a brother in Boston. The man has taught cooking classes at the Pine Street Inn, a facility for the homeless.
The judge rules on bail.
- Example: The judge imposed $500 cash bail, required the man to wear a GPS and imposed a curfew on him from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. He is on probation and if charged with a new crime can have his bail revoked.
And so it goes, in case after case. About 25 cases were expected to be heard Monday in Suffolk Superior Court.
Sessions like those on Monday are expected to continue for three weeks. This is, however, just a preliminary phase in dealing with the fallout from the scandal.
Just the beginning
The cases themselves aren't being set aside — the sentences have simply been put on hold. A whole other round, which could include retrials, remains to come.
At least 1,140 people are behind bars in cases that used evidence handled by Dookhan.
The cost of the prosecutor's side alone of these proceedings could be $10 million a year, according to an analysis by the Boston Globe. That just begins to describe the costs of the scandal, however. On Thursday, Boston Mayor Thomas Menino said the city is putting aside $3.5 million for extra police units to handle the influx of those released early.