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Drug lab investigation getting new leader

Inspector general replaces Coakley

The William A. Hinton State Laboratory Institute houses the Massachusetts state drug lab in Jamaica Plain.

Steven Senne/ASSOCIATED PRESS

The William A. Hinton State Laboratory Institute houses the Massachusetts state drug lab in Jamaica Plain.

Inspector General Glenn Cunha will take over the investigation of the operations of the Jamaica Plain drug lab where former state chemist Annie Dookhan allegedly tainted evidence in thousands of cases, Governor Deval Patrick said Monday.

In a statement, Patrick said Cunha will take over the sweeping inquiry into the closed Depart­ment of Public Health lab where Dookhan worked from 2003 to 2012, replacing Attorney General Martha ­Coakley, who will continue to pursue the criminal investigation into Dookhan.

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Coakley’s position in seeking to prosecute Dookhan, along with her office’s prior advocacy of the quality of the science at the lab in courthouses earlier this year, led the Massachusetts Bar Association and the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts to seek her ouster from the lab investigation.

“Inspector General Cunha brings the necessary independence and experience to the task and enjoys the support of both prosecutors and the ­defense bar,” Patrick said in announc­ing the change to ­Cunha. “I look forward to his findings.”

Cunha was named inspector general in July and previously had been an assistant attorney general who led investigations into the Chelsea Housing ­Authority, human trafficking, and other criminal matters.

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“The integrity and credibility of the criminal justice system require a comprehensive and thorough review of the drug lab,” Cunha said in a statement. “My office is prepared to conduct such a review, and, to that end, I have already begun to ­assemble an experienced team to examine the lab’s operations, paying particular attention to its policies and procedures.”

Cunha plans to hire independent forensic experts “to ­determine whether potential failures at the drug lab impact cases beyond those handled ­directly by Dookhan,’’ according to Patrick’s statement.

Cunha’s work will proceed alongside David Meier’s “boiler room’’ operation, in which the Boston attorney is trying to match drug samples to criminal defendants. So far, Meier has connected Dookhan-tested drug samples to 1,900 defendants.

Martin Healy, chief legal counsel to the Massachusetts Bar Association, said in the same statement that the Cunha appointment should lead to an “independent investigation of the drug lab.’’

Coakley, through aides, welcomed the opportunity to step aside from what promises to be a time-consuming, costly inquiry that she believes will help ­restore public confidence in the state’s criminal justice system.

Dookhan has pleaded not guilty to two counts of obstruction of justice and to inflating her academic résumé. She has pleaded not guilty and is free on $10,000 cash bail.

She reportedly told State ­Police assigned to Coakley’s ­office that she manipulated the weights of some drug samples, tampered with samples to turn a negative result into a positive, and violated lab protocols aimed at protecting the integrity of the testing, which must be done in every drug case to prove the state’s drug trafficking laws have been violated.

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