BOSTON (AP) - Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley, who is conducting a criminal investigation into the mishandling of evidence at a state drug laboratory, called Wednesday for the appointment of an independent investigator to look into broader issues surrounding the testing scandal.
"The failure at the Hinton Lab represents a major breakdown of the criminal justice system, and I know your office shares our commitment to fixing it and restoring faith in our system," the attorney general's top deputy wrote in a letter to Gov. Deval Patrick's chief-of-staff, calling for the outside review of the policies, practices and oversight at the lab.
Annie Dookhan, a former chemist, is accused of skirting protocols and faking drug test results. She has pleaded not guilty to obstructing justice.
The scandal has threatened to unravel thousands of criminal cases across the state. Officials said Dookhan tested more than 60,000 drug samples involving about 34,000 individuals over a nine-year period at the lab, which has since closed.
Patrick had requested that Coakley, in addition to her prosecution of Dookhan, conduct a broader review of the lab to determine if failures may have affected other cases beyond those handled by a single chemist. To that end, the attorney general said she had begun to assign staff and forensic experts to audit the lab and its procedures.
The initial call for an independent investigator came in a letter to Coakley last week from several legal groups, including the Massachusetts Bar Association and the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts.
The groups, which stressed that the request was not intended as a criticism of the attorney general, said it was important that the probe be perceived as fully independent so that public confidence could be restored in the criminal justice system.
Coakley, in a statement accompanying the letter on Wednesday, agreed.
"It is critical that all parties have unquestioned faith in (the) process from the beginning so that they will have full confidence in the conclusions drawn at the end," she said.
Coakley requested that Patrick select the independent investigator in consultation with district attorneys and defense lawyers.
The governor's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
"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 Healy, chief legal counsel for the group, said in a statement.
The state's trial court has been holding special sessions to consider challenges from defense attorneys who are seeking to have sentences for clients put on hold and bail granted to defendants already serving prison time in cases in which Dookhan tested suspected drugs. Many such requests have already been granted.