Two and a half years short of his earliest release date, Milton L. Britton of Oak Bluffs, convicted in Edgartown Superior Court last April of dealing cocaine, walked out of MCI Cedar Junction Friday, a free man.
It was not new evidence or a new lawyer that freed Mr. Britton. He is the first convicted Martha’s Vineyard drug dealer to have his sentence stayed because of an unfolding scandal at the now closed state drug laboratory in Jamaica Plain.
At the time of his arrest and in court, Mr. Britton, the former chief probation officer of the Massachusetts Probation Service, admitted that he sold cocaine.
On March 18, 2011, members of the Martha’s Vineyard Drug Task Force found 39 bags of cocaine with a total weight of 40.5 grams in the condominium Mr. Britton shares with his wife, Ruth, at 4 Quail Run Road in Oak Bluffs.
In most cases, the Drug Task Force relied on the State Police crime lab in Sudbury to test seized drugs. Oak Bluffs was the only town that regularly used the William A. Hinton Laboratory in Jamaica Plain. In the case of Mr. Britton the seized cocaine was sent to Jamaica Plain.
Last month, state officials revealed that lab chemist Annie Dookhan was responsible for not following testing protocols and falsifying test results. They estimate her actions may have affected the 34,000 cases she worked on since 2003.
District attorneys and judges across the state have begun reviewing cases in which Ms. Dookhan certified drug evidence. On Friday, a judge stayed Mr. Britton’s sentence, and he walked out of prison.
Although prosecutors have the option of retrying Mr. Britton and any of those freed as a result of the scandal, it is unlikely to happen except in a limited number of cases, according to a justice official with knowledge of state procedures.
Oak Bluffs Police Detective Nick Curelli, a member of the drug task force, spent many hours on the Britton case. In a telephone conversation Wednesday he said it is difficult to watch an admitted drug dealer walk free.
“It is very frustrating for this to happen, but it is completely out of the control of the police officers who worked so hard to remove these drugs from the street,” Mr. Curelli said. “Especially since he repeatedly admitted he was selling drugs, when arrested and in court. He told us he was selling each bag for $100.”
In a telephone conversation Wednesday, Cape and Islands District Attorney Michael O’Keefe told The Times that he could not comment directly on the Britton case, but he agreed to speak about the review process.
“There are dedicated days with a dedicated Superior Court judge for each region,” Mr. O’Keefe said. Judge Robert C. Rufo is sitting in Barnstable Court to review cases for this region.
“A number of people have been brought in, and the majority of them have been released, and one was held,” he said. “And there will be many more brought in for review in court with respect to their case.”
In each case, he explained, a judge can issue a stay of execution of the sentences of those in custody “when that which is keeping them in custody is a case in which this particular chemist was a primary or secondary chemist, and there is no other reason for them to be in custody, such as a concurrent sentence for an unrelated crime, or for example a weapons charge.”
Once the stay is allowed the prisoner goes free. The followup may be a motion for a new trial, if the DA decides whether to begin a new prosecution.
Asked to comment on the frustration of frontline prosecutors watching convicted criminals walk free, Mr. O’Keefe said, “Well, this is a catastrophe of very significant proportions based on a lack of management at that laboratory as well as the actions of this particular chemist, and it is going to wreck havoc across the state.”
Mr. O’Keefe estimated that more than 1,000 people would be released, and that is only in the first wave of cases.
“This is as bad a situation as I can remember in over 30 years of being a prosecutor,” he said. “But the integrity of the system requires that this be done. The impact cannot yet really be described.”
Guilty as charged
At the time of his arrest in March, 2011, Mr. Britton told police that he did not use cocaine, but that he did sell it.
In court on April 6, 2012, assistant district attorney Laura Marshard laid out the case before Dukes County Superior Court Judge C. J. Moriarty.
“Significant amounts of cocaine were found, there were packages in his pants pocket, there were significant packages in a storage unit,” Ms. Marshard told the court. “He indicated that he sold bags of cocaine, usually for a hundred dollars. Police found substances used to cut [pure cocaine] in the refrigerator, cash in the living room, pieces of paper commonly referred to as chit sheets, where names and amounts of drugs were recorded.”
In court and under oath, asked by Judge Moriarty, “Are those facts true?”
Mr. Britton answered, “Yes sir.”
“Are you pleading guilty because you are guilty, and for no other reason,” Judge Moriarty asked.
“Yes sir,” Mr. Britton said.
A deal agreed upon between Mr. Britton’s lawyer, Robyn Nash, and Ms. Marshard called for Mr. Britton to plead guilty and receive a two and a half year sentence with 18 months to be served in the Dukes County House of Correction.
“I reject the agreement,” Judge Moriarty told the lawyers.
Judge Moriarty explained why. He said that as a probation officer, Mr. Britton had to know the effects of drug addiction.
“They’re the catalyst for all different types of crimes,” Judge Moriarty said. “You had to know that up front, close, and very personal sir, you had to know that. This does not sound to me that you got involved in this activity because you were addicted, based upon the statement you gave to police at the outset. It appears to me that you made that statement because you were doing this for profit, which makes it all the more despicable, in my view. The conduct is disgraceful, as a probation officer, sir. It’s not borne of addiction, it’s borne of greed.”
Judge Moriarty sentenced Mr. Britton to serve three to five years in state prison.
Mr. Britton retired on June 3, 2000, as chief probation officer assigned to the commissioner of probation in Boston, following a 30-year career in probation. He bought the Quail Run Road condominium in May 1999.
Mr. Britton also worked as a teaching assistant for six years at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School. His job ended with the 2006-2007 school year.
Mr. Britton could not be reached for comment.