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Originally published Tuesday, March 12, 2013 at 10:43 AM

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Single justice to hear challenge in drug lab cases

A single justice of the state's highest court is set to hear from prosecutors who are challenging the way lower courts are handling thousands of drug convictions now in jeopardy because of alleged misconduct by a state chemist at a drug-testing lab.

The Associated Press

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BOSTON —

A single justice of the state's highest court is set to hear from prosecutors who are challenging the way lower courts are handling thousands of drug convictions now in jeopardy because of alleged misconduct by a state chemist at a drug-testing lab.

Justice Margot Botsford has scheduled a hearing Wednesday.

Chemist Annie Dookhan has been accused of faking test results and tampering with evidence in drug cases while she worked at a now-closed Department of Public Health lab.

In three cases, Essex County District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett is challenging the powers of retired judges hired as special magistrates to hear the Dookhan cases, including whether they have the authority to put sentences on hold and release convicted drug dealers while their new trial motions are pending.

Botsford will decide whether to send one or more of the cases to the full court.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts and public defenders argue that drug defendants whose cases were handled by Dookhan have a "presumptive right" to be released while their legal challenges are pending.

The ACLU has asked Botsford to ask the full court to answer broader questions about how the lower courts have handled the Dookhan cases and whether defendants' constitutional rights are being violated as they wait in prison for hearings in their cases.

Dozens of defendants in cases handled by Dookhan have already been released on bail while their new trial motions are pending.

But Blodgett is challenging that procedure.

State officials estimate that Dookan worked on more than 34,000 cases during her nine years at the lab. But the state's public defender agency say thousands more cases handled by other chemists could also be tainted because an investigation showed widespread problems with oversight, management and protocols at the lab.

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