Key pieces of evidence in the Oklahoma City bombing case were mishandled by unqualified FBI investigators and stored in areas that may have been contaminated, a witness said Tuesday.
Frederic Whitehurst, a veteran FBI forensic chemist and a longtime critic of the FBI’s lab work, also questioned the authenticity of a key piece of evidence that prosecutors say connects the bombing to a Ryder truck.
By pitting Whitehurst against the agency where he has worked for the past 15 years, defense lawyers tried to prove that tainted evidence caused the government to wrongly accuse Timothy James McVeigh of bombing the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.
The witness, a former supervising agent in the FBI lab, said he has no proof that sloppy work resulted in McVeigh’s being falsely accused.
“I have no knowledge of any actual contamination of any evidence in this case,” Whitehurst said during crossexamination. But, he said, the FBI mishandled pieces of evidence, took few or no precautions to prevent them from being contaminated and did a shoddy job of keeping the evidence secure at FBI laboratories in Washington.
“If we’re processing evidence and we’re contaminated ourselves, then we don’t know whether our finding of explosives residue on material is a result of our contaminating the material ourselves,” Whitehurst said.
McVeigh, 29, is on trial on charges of murder and criminal conspiracy in the April 19, 1995, blast in downtown Oklahoma City that killed 168 people and injured more than 500 others. If convicted, he could receive the death penalty.
Prosecutors contend that traces of explosives found on several items, including McVeigh’s clothes and on a pair of his ear plugs, prove that he carried out the crime - the worst act of domestic terrorism in American history.
Whitehurst, a controversial agent with the FBI, was critical of the FBI lab even before the Oklahoma City bombing, and he helped initiate a Justice Department study that recently found the lab work to sometimes be flawed in favor of prosecutors.
Whitehurst was considered the defense’s strongest weapon in its efforts to discredit the FBI’s work in the Oklahoma bombing case.
Whitehurst not only told the jury that crucial assignments were given to inexperienced investigators in the lab. He said that in May 1995 areas of the lab were found to be “contaminated” with outside “organic explosives” at a time when Oklahoma bombing evidence was being brought there to be examined.
He said rooms containing the Oklahoma bomb evidence were not required to be locked and that “special tours” of “visiting dignitaries” were allowed to go through the lab.
In addition, Whitehurst said, FBI agents could walk through the lab after coming directly from the agency’s bomb range in Quantico, Va., where they could have picked up other traces of explosives.