The FBI’s famed crime laboratory used flawed methods and provided inaccurate testimony in some of the biggest criminal investigations in recent times, including the Oklahoma City bombing case, according to a Justice Department report released Tuesday.
While citing “serious and significant deficiencies” by the lab, the department’s inspector general said his 18-month examination failed to substantiate the most sensational charges by lab expert Frederic Whitehurst that his colleagues committed perjury in criminal trials, fabricated evidence and conspired in their wrongdoing.
Still, Inspector General Michael Bromwich recommended numerous personnel changes, including reassigning some managers and employees to jobs outside the lab. In response to the report’s criticisms, the bureau said Tuesday it planned to tap an FBI outsider for the first time to run the crime lab.
The 500-page report covered just a sampling of cases referred to the lab’s forensic scientists. The report took care to note that investigators found examples of “superb work and encountered laboratory personnel dedicated to the highest traditions of forensic science.”
But the ripple effects from the report’s finding of deficient crime lab practices are likely to extend far beyond the few cases reviewed.
The lab takes part annually in 600,000 criminal investigations. Its reputation for using the latest investigatory techniques, burnished for decades by the publicity machine created by J. Edgar Hoover, the bureau’s first director, means it often gets requests in state and local cases as well as federal investigations.
Many criminal lawyers and defendants across the country are likely to use the report’s findings in attempts to overturn convictions or win acquittals in cases involving FBI lab work.
“Let me be clear. The problems and deficiencies that Whitehurst brought to our attention are extremely serious,” Bromwich said. “But they are a far cry from the types of rampant and intentional wrongdoing alleged by Dr. Whitehurst.”
The report is the latest embarrassment for the FBI and its director, Louis Freeh, a former agent and federal judge. The bureau’s leadership has been tarnished by incidents such as the mishandling of last summer’s Olympic Park bombing in Atlanta, where FBI leaks cast public suspicion on security guard Richard Jewell, who was later exonerated.
“I guess a good day is when we’re not in the papers,” said a clearly frustrated Bill Esposito, FBI deputy director, at a news conference. He said the bureau planned to add more scientists and to seek long-delayed independent certification of its lab.
The investigators found that certain lab members made a number of mistakes that included giving testimony that was inaccurate or beyond the examiner’s expertise, scientifically flawed reports and insufficiently documented lab results.
In the Oklahoma City bombing case, for instance, the report stated that agent David Williams, an examiner in the lab’s explosives unit, went beyond the available evidence to make his conclusions fit the prosecutors’ scenario.
Prosecutors have charged Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols with destroying the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building and killing 168 people. The weapon, according to investigators, was a truck bomb made from ammonium nitrate and fuel oil.
The inspector general’s report said that Williams categorically stated that the main explosive charge was contained in white 50-gallon size plastic barrels similar to some found at Nichols’ house. But the lab did no analyses that could definitively lead to that conclusion.
Williams also told investigators the bomber used a 3-foot, military-style fuse based on his assumption the bomber had a military background. McVeigh and Nichols are both Army veterans. But Williams had no scientific evidence for his conclusion.
“These errors were all tilted in such a way as to incriminate the defendants,” the inspector general’s report said. “We are troubled that the opinions in Williams’ report may have been tailored to conform to the evidence associated with the defendants. We conclude that Williams failed to present an objective, unbiased, competent report.”
The inspector general’s report recommended that Williams, along with his supervisor, J. Thomas Thurman, who was sharply criticized for poor oversight, be transferred out of the crime lab.
Williams also was singled out for his investigation of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. In his official report on the terrorist blast, about which he also testified, he said the men ultimately convicted produced 1,200 pounds of urea nitrate explosive.
But on examination, that conclusion seemed based less on scientific evidence than “speculation beyond his scientific expertise that appeared tailored to the most incriminating result,” the inspector general said.
Chagrined FBI officials said they had already adopted, or planned to implement, the inspector general’s 40 recommendations. One of them was to bring forensic science experts into the explosives unit to replace sworn agents like Williams who appear biased towards results that please prosecutors instead of maintaining a scientific neutrality.
“We regret we got to this point,” said Esposito, the FBI’s deputy director.
Daniel Polsby, a criminal law professor at Northwestern University law school, said the lab’s problems need to be taken seriously.
“I, for one, am going to be annoyed if in the Waco tradition Janet Reno says, ‘It’s all my fault,’ and nothing happens. The Justice Department needs to worry about this and get its act together,” Polsby said.
Justice Department and FBI officials said that because of the problems in the bureau’s crime lab, prosecutors had been notified in 55 cases of evidence that could potentially change outcomes. In 1963, the Supreme Court, in a ruling known as the Brady decision, required disclosure of information favorable to a defendant.
The Justice Department said, however, that on receiving information from Washington, prosecutors in those cases decided disclosure was needed in only 25 of the cases. Litigation occurred in 13 of the cases because of the FBI’s errant lab work, but there were no changes in the outcome of any of those cases, the Justice Department said.
The report also raised questions about the future of Whitehurst, the whistleblower. Though credited with instigating the review, the report cited his “inflammatory” charges against “innocent persons” and raised doubts as to whether he had the “common sense and judgment” to continue serving as a forensic examiner.
xxxx 1. Flawed lab work Although the Justice Department did not find evidence that agents falsified evidence, it did find that the FBI laboratory work in a number of key cases was seriously flawed. Impeachment of U.S. District Judge Alcee Hastings in Florida in 1985: The FBI examiner was found to have falsely testified he had performed a test on a purse strap, and testified inaccurately about test results. World Trade Center bombing in New York City in 1993: Agent’s testimony about the type of explosive used and whether the defendants could have manufactured it was “unscientific” and “appeared to be tailored to the most incriminating result.” Oklahoma City bombing, April 1995: Examiner’s report contains serious flaws, including an unjustified opinion of the speed of detonation of the main charge. O.J. Simpson case, Los Angeles, 1996: Testimony by the chief of the chemical and toxicology unit showed a lack of preparation and poor record-keeping. - Knight-Ridder
2. Inspector general’s recommendations To restore confidence in the FBI lab, the Justice Department’s inspector general recommends that the agency: Transfer, censure or discipline five agents for flawed work. Transfer Frederic Whitehurst, who raised the complaints, because of “many inflammatory but unsubstantiated allegations.” Seek accreditation by the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors. Restructure the explosives unit and make sure all the agents are scientists. Make sure all lab results are signed by the examiner who does them and are reviewed by another examiner. Establish and follow uniform standards for handling evidence.
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