Attorney General Martha Coakley is asking the governor to appoint an independent investigator to review the policies, practices, and oversight at the state laboratory in Jamaica Plain where a chemist’s alleged mishandling of evidence has thrown thousands of drug cases into question.
The attorney general’s office wants to focus on a criminal investigation of Annie Dookhan, the diminutive chemist from Franklin at the center of the drug lab scandal, and let the independent investigator conduct a broader look.
“It is critical that all parties have unquestioned faith in that process from the beginning so that they will have full confidence in the conclusions drawn at the end,’’ Coakley said in a statement. “As a result, we are now requesting that the Governor – in consultation with District Attorneys and defense counsel – appoint an independent investigator to conduct this broader review.’’
The governor’s office immediately said it would appoint someone. “We will waste no time identifying a new person to take up this important responsibility,’’ governor’s spokeswoman Kim Haberline said in a statement.
Coakley’s office had been conducting a two-track inquiry, both investigating Dookhan and beginning an inquiry to determine if cases handled by chemists other than Dookhan were tainted.
A coalition of lawyers’ groups, including the state bar association and the state’s public defender agency, called last week for an independent investigation of the lab, though they did not call for Coakley to back off her probe of Dookhan.
“The Massachusetts Bar Association applauds the attorney general’s decision in calling for a broader investigation into the drug lab, and looks forward to working with the governor on this pressing issue,’’ Martin W. Healy, chief legal counsel for the bar association, said in a statement.
Carol Rose, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, also praised Coakley’s move, saying, “As unimpeachable as the Office of the Attorney General is, to truly expedite an incontrovertible resolution to this crisis and fully restore public confidence in our criminal justice system, this expanded investigation must be — and must be seen — to be credible and beyond reproach.’’
Authorities fear that Dookhan, whose motives are not clear, may have tainted evidence in 34,000 criminal cases over the nine years she worked at the Jamaica Plain lab run by the Department of Public Health. The lab has now been shut down. Special court sessions are being held to deal with more than 1,000 people who are now imprisoned or awaiting trial on drug charges that may have involved evidence handled by Dookhan.
Dookhan, who faces two counts of obstruction of justice and one count of fabricating her academic history, has pleaded not guilty to all charges and is free on $10,000 cash bail.
Also today, a group of lawmakers in the state House announced they would hold hearings into practices at the Department of Public Health, saying hearings would look both at the state drug and at oversight of pharmacies, which has become an issue since a Framingham compounding pharmacy was linked to a nationwide meningitis outbreak.