February 14, 1997 in Nation/World

Fbi Lab May Have Mishandled At Least 50 Cases Justice Department Says Evidentiary Problems At The Lab May Have Resulted In Improper Prosecutions

The Washington Post
 

The Justice Department has identified at least 50 criminal cases where evidentiary problems created by questionable forensic analysis at the FBI laboratory may have resulted in improper prosecutions, Deputy Attorney General Jamie S. Gorelick said Thursday, acknowledging that the number of problem cases could go higher.

Gorelick’s announcement casts new doubt on the competence and credibility of the once-renowned FBI forensic facility. Just last week, FBI executives said no criminal cases had been compromised by the lab’s problems.

Justice Department lawyers are now reviewing hundreds of criminal prosecutions identified in a still-sealed inspector general’s report on the lab to determine whether there is evidence from the FBI facility that should have been given to defense lawyers. Gorelick said Thursday that Justice Department lawyers had asked state and federal prosecutors in the 50 cases identified so far to determine whether the findings about the lab’s problems should be made available to defense attorneys.

Separately, the judge presiding in the March 31 trial of Timothy James McVeigh, accused of blowing up the Oklahoma City federal building, ordered the Justice Department Thursday to give defense attorneys a copy of the inspector general’s draft report on the lab, a move the lawyers say could help them defend their client.

Gorelick’s announcement was the first time the Justice Department has identified a specific number of prosecutions that could be jeopardized by the problems in the FBI laboratory.

The FBI learned of serious inadequacies in the lab nearly a decade before the Justice Department inquiry documented failings there, but the bureau took action to remedy those deficiencies only when it was threatened with public exposure, according to FBI and congressional documents.

The FBI has long promoted its laboratory to Congress and the public as a paragon of professionalism and incorruptibility, but the documents, obtained by The Washington Post, show that outside experts have questioned its most basic practices since at least 1980.

By 1988, FBI officials were concerned enough about conditions in the laboratory that they commissioned a study that concluded that the facility needed to be relocated because its inadequacies could not be fixed by renovation, according to FBI budget documents.

Critics and some defense attorneys claim the lab investigation has so damaged the bureau’s reputation that it threatens to erode the FBI’s crimefighting abilities.

“The FBI laboratory has always enjoyed such a fine reputation that prosecutors could present its reports confident that they had absolute credibility with juries,” said Julie B. Aimen, co-chair of the committee on forensic science at the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. “Now it is no longer above reproach, and everything they have done over the past few years is going to be questioned when it is brought into a courtroom.”

Some of the bureau’s strongest supporters contend that the FBI’s credibility now rests on the way it goes about identifying and correcting problems at the laboratory.

Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, chairman of the Judiciary subcommittee that oversees the FBI, defined the stakes this way: “The bottom line is that we must reestablish the confidence of the American public in federal law enforcement. The public trust in the FBI has been shaken.”

Asked to assess the steps taken by the FBI thus far, Grassley said in an interview that, “at times, the FBI seems more interested in image than product.”

The FBI’s position, repeated in several recent public statements is that “the FBI, acting on its own, began the complex process of laboratory improvements long before the Justice Department study began.”


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