March 23, 1997 in Nation/World

Fbi Lab Bungled Evidence In Bombing, Report Concludes

Michael J. Sniffen Associated Press

A draft Justice Department report concludes that an FBI lab supervisor made unscientific conclusions biased in favor of the prosecution in the Oklahoma City bombing case, an individual familiar with the report said Saturday.

But this supervisor was dropped in January from the government’s list of planned expert witnesses for the trial, which is to begin later this month. Instead, prosecutors plan to call another lab expert who has not been subject to such criticism and has been praised even by the lab’s critics.

While defendant Timothy McVeigh’s attorney, Stephen Jones, has attacked the lab’s work and threatened to make it a major issue in the trial, prosecutors have expressed confidence they can make their case without relying on any questionable lab findings.

In a draft report completed in January, the Justice Department inspector general was critical of the work of David Williams, a supervisor in the lab’s explosives unit who was in overall charge of evidence-gathering at the bombed Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.

Shortly after receiving a copy of the draft report, the FBI transferred Williams and two other lab supervisors to other work.

Discipline for them will depend on the inspector general’s final report, which the government told a federal court will not be completed until at least the week of April 7 or possibly the week of April 14.

The draft report says several of Williams’ findings are scientifically insupportable and reflect a bias in favor of the prosecutors’ theory of the case, according to a source familiar with this section of the report, who demanded anonymity.

Justice Department officials have sent other parts of the inspector general’s report to prosecutors in 50 federal and state cases around the nation because the findings might tend to clear defendants and thus may have to be turned over to their lawyers.

Forensic evidence - about the Oklahoma City explosion, the Ryder rental truck that apparently carried the bomb and other matters - is an important element of the case against McVeigh and Terry Nichols, accused in the April 1995 bombing that killed 168 people and injured more than 500. McVeigh’s trial is to begin March 31 in Denver; Nichols is to be tried later.

Prosecutors said in January that instead of Williams, they would call as an expert explosives witness Steve Burmeister, an FBI lab analyst against whom no such allegations have been made. Burmeister also worked on the evidence in the Oklahoma City case.

An investigation of the crime lab’s practices began in 1996 following complaints from FBI chemist and whistleblower Frederic Whitehurst.

The Los Angeles Times reported that the inspector general’s draft singled out Williams for extensive criticism but also was critical of James T. “Tom” Thurman, chief of the lab’s explosives unit, and Roger Martz, chief of the chemistry unit. Thurman and Martz are the other two lab managers transferred to other work by the FBI in January.

The Associated Press has learned that allegations of unscientific conclusions by Williams and sloppy work by Martz were made to the inspector general by several federal agents involved in the Oklahoma City investigation. Whitehurst alleged the conclusions were biased in favor of prosecutors.

The draft report says Williams’ conclusions on the bomb’s weight and triggering device are not necessarily based on evidence from the scene but are based on additional evidence found at the defendants’ property, such as receipts, thus swaying his analysis toward the prosecution, the L.A. Times said.

Among Williams’ scientifically insupportable conclusions is the kind of fuse he said was used in the blast, according to the Times.

Williams concluded that a 3-foot burning fuse was used after viewing a videotape taken two minutes and 15 seconds before the blast showing the Ryder truck supposedly used in the explosion.

Thoughts and opinions on this story? Click here to comment >>

Get stories like this in a free daily email