Thursday, December 15, 2011

Was the White Powder Cocaine? Apparently so, but Melendez-Diaz Acquitted

In February, the Boston Globe reported the acquittal of Luis Melendez-Diaz [1]. Melendez-Diaz gained legal fame when the Supreme Court reversed his initial conviction for drug trafficking because the Commonwealth of Massachusetts used sworn "certificates of analysis" from a state laboratory to show that a white powder was cocaine. [2] A state statute allowed this official hearsay, and the certificates were not accompanied oral testimony (or even a written report) of how the laboratory reached this conclusion.

On retrial, the Commonwealth "called to the stand a chemist from the state Department of Public Health who testified that the substance allegedly found in the back seat of a police cruiser with Melendez-Diaz and two other men in 2001 had tested positive for cocaine." Apparently the accuracy of the laboratory's finding was not in dispute. The defense lawyer said that the case "really seemed to be about guilt by association." Police had arrested Melendez-Diaz and two other men and placed them in the back of a police cruiser. Because the officers saw the men fidgeting on the way to the police station, they searched the car and found 19 bags of a white substance.

Evidently, Melendez-Diaz's proximity to the bags did not convince the jurors of his guilt. A spokesman for the district attorney's office said that “We’re 10 years out from the original incident, and the passage of so much time only makes a case tougher to try. The acquittal did not free Melendez-Diaz, who is serving a separate 10-year sentence for drug trafficking.


1. Martin Finucane, Drug Defendant Retried on High Court’s Order Is Acquitted, Boston Globe, Feb. 11, 2011.

2. Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts, 557 U.S. __, 129 S. Ct. 2527 (2009).

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