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Court: Can’t apply drug ruling in every case

Court: Can’t apply drug ruling in every case

By Associated Press  |   Tuesday, July 26, 2011  | |  Local Coverage

A Massachusetts man whose 2004 drug case led to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that criminal defendants have a right to cross-examine forensic analysts about lab reports lost a bid for a new trial in a separate case that the state’s highest court said Tuesday was not covered by the ruling.

In 2009, Luis Melendez-Diaz of Boston won a new trial after he challenged his cocaine trafficking conviction in Boston, in particular a lab report that confirmed the presence of cocaine. The U.S. Supreme Court held that Melendez-Diaz should be allowed to cross-examine the lab analyst who tested plastic bags in which the cocaine was found.

The landmark ruling was praised by defense attorneys around the country, but criticized by prosecutors who said it would require them to hire many more chemists to testify during trials. After a retrial, Melendez-Diaz was acquitted in the 2004 case.

On Tuesday, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that Melendez-Diaz is not entitled to a new trial in a separate 2005 drug case. The state court found that because Melendez-Diaz had exhausted his appeals and the 2005 conviction became final before the U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Melendez-Diaz could not use the 2009 ruling retroactively.

The Massachusetts court also ruled in a second case Tuesday that the 2009 decision cannot be applied retroactively.

Mary T. Rogers, a Salem lawyer who represented Melendez-Diaz, argued that the U.S. Supreme Court rule in 2009 did not amount to a new rule, but had already been put in place in a 2004 ruling by the high court.

But the Massachusetts court found that the 2004 ruling did not include a complete definition of what types of evidence would be considered “testimonial” and therefore subject to cross-examination. The court said the Melendez-Diaz ruling of 2009 established a new rule that “certificates of analysis” in drug cases are inadmissible without the testimony of the chemist who can verify the test results.

“We are deeply disappointed in the SJC because it was very clear in Melendez-Diaz that the court was merely applying a decision that the Supreme Court had decided several years before,” Rogers said. “We know that because the Supreme Court itself stated that it was merely a straightforward application of an (earlier) decision. It doesn’t get any clearer than that.”

Melendez-Diaz was convicted in 2005 of two indictments charging cocaine trafficking and one indictment charging possession of heroin with intent to distribute in Plymouth County. He was sentenced to a 10-year mandatory prison term. His convictions were affirmed by the state Appeals Court. Then in June 2009, after his convictions became final, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in his case. He later filed a motion for a new trial, which was denied.

Rogers said his sentence in Plymouth County was stayed pending his appeal. She said she may appeal the Supreme Judicial Court’s ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Plymouth County District Attorney Timothy Cruz said the rulings Tuesday limit the effect of the Supreme Court’s 2009 ruling in the first Melendez-Diaz case.

“These are important cases that have enormous statewide significance,” Cruz said. “Today’s decisions prevent retrials of potentially thousands of cases which have been final for many years.”

Also Tuesday, the Supreme Judicial Court affirmed the denial of a request for a new trial for Yainira Boria, who was convicted of distributing cocaine in 2006 and sentenced to a five-year mandatory prison term.

Boria filed a motion for a new trial in Nov. 2009, arguing that her lawyer failed to raise the inadmissibility of the drug certificate in her original appeal. Her motion was denied, and she asked the SJC to apply the 2009 Melendez-Diaz ruling retroactively. The Supreme Judicial Court found again that the new rule established in the 2009 ruling was not applicable to convictions that had become final before the ruling.

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