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Coakley urged to pick independent investigator in lab scandal

A coalition of lawyers’ groups called on Attorney General Martha Coakley Wednesday to step aside and appoint an independent investigator to direct the inquiry into the state drug lab where former state chemist Annie Dookhan is ­accused of tampering with evidence in criminal cases.

Coakley’s office is spearheading a two-track inquiry ­into the former Department of Public Health lab in Jamaica Plain: the criminal inquiry of Dookhan and a deeper look ­into thousands of cases handled by other chemists at the lab closed by the Patrick administration this year.

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“We are not satisfied that this situation is contained to one rogue chemist,’’ said Martin Healy, general counsel for the Massachusetts Bar Association. “It could be wider than that. . . . There are so many unanswered questions.’’

In the letter, the lawyers’ groups, including the bar association and the state’s public ­defender agency, reminded Coakley that lawyers in her ­office insisted this spring in Eastern Massachusetts courts that any problems with the lab and Dookhan were limited and that the science could be trusted.

Now, authorities fear that Dookhan may have tainted evidence in 34,000 criminal cases, a tally that covers the nine years she worked at the lab. Special court sessions have been set up 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.

The lawyers also complained that they have had to rely on stories in the Globe to learn key details about the scandal, including the disclosure that Dookhan exchanged e-mails with a Norfolk County prosecutor at a time when she allegedly tampered with evidence in about 100 cases from that county.

“Only a truly independent investigation will restore the public’s confidence in the integrity of the criminal justice system,’’ the attorneys said.

The lawyers’ groups did not ask that Coakley back off the prosecution of Dookhan. Last month, Coakley’s office charged the former chemist with two counts of obstruction of justice and one count of fabricating her academic history.

Dookhan has pleaded not guilty to all charges and is free on $10,000 cash bail.

A spokesman for Coakley, Brad Puffer, said the attorney general’s office is reviewing the request from the lawyers’ groups but expressed surprise at the claim Coakley’s ­office has not been forthcoming.

“We are surprised by today’s letter and press release after we have been working for weeks with defense counsel to establish a protocol to ensure a fair, complete, and transparent inves­tigation into those broader issues at the lab,’’ Puffer said. “All of our goals are the same: to ensure a thorough, fair investigation that will ultimately ­restore trust in our criminal justice system.”

Coakley, in a letter sent to the Patrick administration, said she would need up to $2 million to hire staff, purchase forensic software, and hire a litigation support company to create a database of potentially affected criminal cases, among other needs, if she retains control of the broader investigation.

Separately, Jay Gonzalez, ­administration and finance secretary in the Patrick administration, said Wednesday that he will file a detailed supplemental budget request with lawmakers next week. The administration had asked all government agencies affected by the scandal to provide budget estimates by Wednesday, but not all met the deadline.

By next week, the administration will seek “interim funding sufficient to cover costs ­related to the crime lab for at least the next few months,’’ said Gonzalez, who will issue money only after agencies submit their documented costs.

John R. Ellement can be reached at ellement@globe.com.
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