SALEM — In what could be an indication of where the state's highest court is heading on a lawsuit seeking release of potentially thousands of inmates due to the coronavirus pandemic, a convicted sex offender with underlying health issues was granted a new hearing Wednesday on his motion to delay the rest of his sentence for violating probation. 

In a decision released Wednesday afternoon, the Supreme Judicial Court said that under the circumstances of the pandemic, a judge should now take into account the risks of keeping someone in custody in deciding whether to grant a stay. 

"Incarcerated individuals often bunk in the same cell or unit and cannot realistically maintain adequate social distancing," Chief Justice Ralph Gants wrote for the court in the decision. He pointed to the number of cases at the Massachusetts Treatment Center as an example.

In the other case, a lawsuit brought on behalf of inmates by the Massachusetts chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and the state public defender's office, the SJC on Wednesday ordered the Department of Corrections and the 14 county sheriffs to submit information by noon on Thursday as to what percentage of their inmate populations are required to sleep, eat and engage in recreation within six feet of other inmates. 

Glenn Christie, 54, was on a 10-year period of probation after completing a prison term for repeated rapes of a 12-year-old boy in Lynn when, a judge found, he committed a series of probation violations. Last fall, he was sentenced to return to state prison for one to two years, a sentence his lawyer is now challenging. 

Earlier this year, a judge denied Christie's request to delay or "stay" the probation violation sentence during that appeal. 

A Salem Superior Court judge denied the request, which Christie's lawyer, David Rangaviz, also appealed. 

On Wednesday, the Supreme Judicial Court, citing coronavirus pandemic and more than a dozen reported cases of the virus now reported at the Massachusetts Treatment Center, ordered the judge to take another look at Christie's request and to take the pandemic into account. 

Gants wrote for the court that "the health risks to a person in custody caused by the pandemic constitute changed circumstances," which entitle him to a new hearing. 

"We also conclude that, in conducting that (new) review, a judge must give careful consideration not only to the risks posed by releasing the defendant –- flight, danger to others or to the community, and likelihood of further criminal acts -- but also, during this pandemic, to the risk that the defendant might die or become seriously ill if kept in custody."

Christie's lawyer has told the court that his client suffers from a number of medical conditions, including hypothyroidism and possible thyroid cancer, kidney disease and spinal stenosis, which, the lawyer said, now requires Christie to use a wheelchair.  

Christie's probation violations included missing a meeting with his probation officer, being suspended from his sex offender treatment program and violating the terms of his GPS monitoring. 

The SJC order requires that a new hearing take place within 48 hours. 

In a tweet on Wednesday, Rangaviz said "I'm cautiously optimistic that the court will see him as a perfect example of the sort of vulnerable person in need of release."

"Given that the issue of Mr. Christie's release is still pending, it is not appropriate for me to comment," said Carrie Kimball, a spokeswoman for the Essex District Attorney's office, which is opposing Christie's release. 

Courts reporter Julie Manganis can be reached at 978-338-2521, by email at jmanganis@salemnews.com or on Twitter at @SNJulieManganis. 

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