January 30, 1997 in Nation/World

Probe Of Fbi Crime Lab Uncovers Reports Of Lying Workers’ Disclosures To Justice Department Interviewers Could Jeopardize High-Profile Criminal Cases

Los Angeles Times
 

Justice Department investigators reviewing reported sloppiness at the FBI’s vaunted crime laboratory here have turned up allegations of broader troubles: Lab officials say they were pressured by agents to lie about their scientific findings and their conclusions were sometimes changed by supervisors to support criminal prosecutions.

The allegations emerged in dozens of interviews that the lab workers have given to officials of the Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General, which is completing an examination of a wide range of problems at the FBI headquarters lab.

Government summaries of many of the interviews show that a number of high-profile criminal cases, such as the Oklahoma City bombing and the Unabomber investigation, may suffer if federal courts later rule that key pieces of evidence have been jeopardized by poor lab work.

But other material provided to the inspector general’s investigators, obtained by the Los Angeles Times this week, reveals that several former and current lab officials also allege conduct by FBI investigating agents and supervisors that raises fundamental questions about the integrity of some FBI employees.

The inspector general’s report is not complete, however, and it is not known whether additional investigation will support these broader allegations. The documents, nonetheless, make it clear that top FBI officials realize they have major problems at the laboratory.

This week, FBI senior officials announced that they will conduct their own review of the lab. In launching that examination, they also disclosed that three senior lab employees were being transferred, including the heads of the chemistry and explosives units. Two of those three are among the supervisors accused of changing the conclusions of lab workers.

The bureau also announced that it plans to improve its training procedures, to build a new lab facility at its Quantico, Va., training academy and to seek outside accreditation with the Laboratory Accreditation Board of the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors.

The FBI, created in 1908, has long regarded its crime lab as the best in the world. Its techniques are followed by forensic experts around the globe and in police forces across the United States. Stymied state and local investigators send evidence to the lab for analysis.

The lead whistle-blower in the lab scandal is Frederic Whitehurst, a senior chemist who was suspended by the bureau this week - reportedly for speaking out publicly in general terms about shortcomings at the lab.

According to the summaries, Whitehurst told the inspector general about a “pattern” in high-profile cases in which unqualified lab personnel testified in court in areas of expertise that they did not have. “Incorrect results were going to the jury,” he said.

He said there were times when the bureau pressured him to prove guilt in cases rather than just test evidence. Asked if he and others were encouraged to commit perjury, he said: “We all do it.”

He also said that there were times when his dictation on lab reports was changed by other examiners without his knowledge, often to switch findings described as “consistent with” certain evidence of a crime to the more positive category “identified as.”

Among those who changed his findings, he said, were David Williams, a supervisory agent in the explosives unit, and James T. Thurman, chief of the explosives unit. They are two of three officials transferred this week.

Steven Burmeister, a chief analyst in the lab’s chemistry and toxicology units, told investigators that the lab “knowingly” has sent out false reports. He added that the lab’s explosives unit has been “stretching the truth for years” and that there often were no supporting data for many of their findings.

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