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editorial

Failures at state drug lab warrant independent probe

A broad administrative inquiry into the management failures at the now-shuttered state drug analysis laboratory in Jamaica Plain should be conducted by an independent investigator with the power to subpoena witnesses. Leaving the probe in the hands of the state attorney general’s office opens too many avenues for potential conflicts of interest.

The Massachusetts Bar Association and prominent legal defense groups have no qualms about the attorney general’s criminal investigation of Annie Dookhan, the former chemist suspected of tainting drug evidence at the lab. Nor should they. It was the attorney general’s office, in conjunction with the State Police, that uncovered the Dookhan mess in the first place. But the legal groups reasonably object to a broader investigation being placed under the control of a state agency that could be perceived as having a stake in the outcome. The attorney general necessarily has close working relationships with district attorneys and the State Police, and there’s a possibility that the AG’s office could be called upon to defend the Commonwealth in future litigation related to the lab scandal.

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Any review should go deeper than the hiring of forensic experts to scrub the drug lab and determine if any chemists other than Dookhan might have tainted evidence. What, for example, is the public supposed to make of the fact that the district attorneys weren’t informed of Dookhan’s misdeeds until eight months after her supervisors discovered irregularities? Did Dookhan initiate inappropriate communications with any prosecutors other than one in Norfolk County? And how did standards at the lab disintegrate right under the noses of the state Department of Public Health?

The public would have a greater comfort level if such questions were addressed by an independent investigator. Among the names being tossed about are former federal prosecutor Wayne Budd and former Superior Court justice Suzanne Del Vecchio. No matter what, the bar association sees this as a job for a trusted outsider. So should the public.

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