Printer Friendly

FBI CRIME LAB METHODS SUBSTANDARD, REPORT SAYS : ANOTHER BLOW.

Byline: David Johnston The New York Times

The Justice Department's inspector general said Tuesday that the FBI's world-renowned crime laboratory is riddled with flawed scientific practices that may have tainted dozens of criminal cases, including the bombings of the federal building in Oklahoma City and the World Trade Center in New York.

Michael Bromwich announced his findings after an 18-month investigation that he said had uncovered ``extremely serious and significant problems'' at a laboratory that for more than six decades - since its founding by J. Edgar Hoover in 1932 - has been a symbol of the FBI's cutting-edge scientific sleuthing.

The investigation found that the laboratory's explosives, chemistry-toxicology and materials-analysis units are rife with substandard performance that has forced FBI officials to review several hundred past and current cases to determine how many might have been jeopardized by faulty work.

The findings are expected to give added impetus to defense lawyers in scores of cases, including the defense in the Oklahoma City bombing case, which served notice in pretrial hearings months ago that it intended to challenge the integrity of the FBI investigation and analysis of physical evidence in the case.

The inspector general's report recognized the central role played by a chemist in the explosives laboratory, Frederic Whitehurst, who was single-handedly responsible for the investigation after filing numerous complaints since 1989 about the laboratory's poor performance and the failings of his colleagues.

The report represented another blow to the reputation of the FBI and its director, Louis Freeh, who took over the bureau in September 1993 as the seriousness of the laboratory's problems began to emerge. In recent months, Freeh's competence has been under attack in Congress in connection with a botched interview with a suspect in the Olympic Park bombing in Atlanta and the release of FBI background files to the White House.

Although Freeh has tried to improve the laboratory, that attack continued Tuesday. Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, said the report demonstrates that the bureau ``needs better leadership.''

Bromwich recommended the censure, transfer or other discipline of five agents who worked in the laboratory, including the one who first asserted that it had problems. He said the inquiry had found numerous instances in which FBI agents who work as scientific examiners had prepared sloppy reports, exaggerated their findings against defendants and inadequately documented their test results.

Moreover, the report found that supervisors had failed to supervise the examiners adequately, had allowed indefensible conclusions to go unchallenged and had left too much discretion to subordinates who reached findings that were unsupported by scientific evidence. The report suggested that the lab had maintained its reputation for years even as its managers clung to outmoded methods and failed to respond to internal complaints.

The bureau's deputy director, William Esposito, expressed regret and acknowledged the criticism of the lab's performance. He said the FBI would focus ``on how did we get to this point, and address these problems so they don't reoccur.''

Major cases

The problems seemed most serious in two major cases: the bombing Feb. 26, 1993, of the World Trade Center, which killed six people, and the bombing April 19, 1995, of the Oklahoma City federal building, which killed 168 people. A group of Islamic fundamentalists was convicted in the trade center case. One man is now on trial in Denver and another is scheduled to be tried for the Oklahoma City bombing.

In the World Trade Center case, the report said an examiner in the explosives laboratory, David Williams, ``gave inaccurate and incomplete testimony and testified to invalid opinions that appeared tailored to the most incriminating result.''

Williams' testimony in the case, the report said, ``exceeded his expertise, was unscientific and speculative, was based on improper nonscientific grounds and appeared to be tailored to correspond with his estimate of the amount of explosive used in the bombing.''

He also was assigned to the Oklahoma case, and the inspector general concluded that ``many of the same errors committed by Williams in the World Trade Center case were repeated in the Oklahoma City case - principally that Williams based some of his conclusions not on a valid scientific analysis, but on speculation from the evidence associated with the defendants.''

Williams' findings, the report concluded, were ``tilted'' to incriminate the defendants. For example, he determined that the Oklahoma City bomb was composed of ANFO, ammonium nitrate and fuel oil, not from chemical analysis but from a speculative judgment based on ``the fact that one of the defendants purchased ANFO components.''

The report found that Williams' supervisor, J. Thomas Thurman, failed to properly review his subordinate's work and that both agents should be singled out for ``special censure'' for their roles in the Oklahoma City case because of the ``enormous national significance'' of the prosecution.

Williams, who was transferred along with Thurman and two other agents in January in response to the inspector general's findings, said in a reply to the report that he had tried to provide rapid scientific evaluations based on information available to him at the time. But he acknowledged that he had ``overstated'' his conclusions in a report on the Oklahoma City bombing.

The report made public Tuesday reported similar lapses in less-well-known cases, including the 1989 bombing of Avianca Airlines Flight 203, which exploded after taking off from Bogota, Colombia, killing all 107 people on board, including two Americans.

Bromwich said he had not found any instance in which laboratory examiners had committed a crime or had intentionally faked forensic evidence, obstructed justice or lied about their findings in court. He said his inquiry had not reached any conclusions about whether the flaws were damaging enough to overturn the outcome of any case.

Findings

``Scientifically flawed testimony'' in four cases, including the World Trade Center bombing.

``Inaccurate testimony'' by an explosives unit examiner from the lab in the World Trade Center case, by a former laboratory examiner in a hearing regarding then-Judge Alcee Hastings, and in a Florida case in which George Trepal was convicted of murder by adding poison to bottled Coca-Cola.

``Testimony beyond the examiner's expertise'' in the World Trade Center and Hastings cases as well as the 1989 explosion of the Avianca Airlines jet.

``Improper preparation of laboratory reports'' by three explosives unit examiners who altered, omitted or improperly supplemented some of the internal reports by whistle-blower Whitehurst.

``Insufficient documentation of test results'' by the examiner who worked on hundreds of cases, including the Unabom investigation, and by the central toxicology unit chief.

``Scientifically flawed reports'' in a case involving the mail-bomb murder of federal appellate Judge Robert Vance and in the Oklahoma City bombing, ``and in a few instances by an explosives unit examiner who altered Whitehurst's report.''

``Inadequate record management and retention system'' by the lab.

``Failures by management'' to resolve allegations in a number of cases.

``A flawed staffing structure of the explosives unit.''

Associated Press

CAPTION(S):

box

BOX: FINDINGS (SEE TEXT)
COPYRIGHT 1997 Daily News
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1997, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Apr 16, 1997
Words:1150
Previous Article:MAKING HEADWAY IN EAST : LANDMARK TO PLAN S. KOREA THEME PARK.
Next Article:DOW ZOOMS 135.26 POINTS AS TURNAROUND HITS 2ND DAY : BEST POINT DAYS.


Related Articles
FBI Laboratory Publications. (Focus on Technology).
FBI LAB WHISTLE-BLOWER SUSPENDED AFTER REPORT.
PROBE THREATENS FBI LAB REPUTATION : AGENT WILL NOT BE CALLED TO TESTIFY IN OKLAHOMA CITY BOMBING TRIAL.
EDITORIAL : SLOPPY SLEUTHING THE FBI'S FORENSIC LAB IS UNDER THE PUBLIC MICROSCOPE FOR ITS SLIPSHOD WORK.
NEW RAY RIFLE TESTING LEAVES EXPERTS DIVIDED.
DA KNEW OF LAB TROUBLE; PROSECUTOR SAYS ALCOHOL TEST PROBLEMS SURFACED IN 1996.
NUCLEAR PHYSICIST WILL HEAD FBI'S TROUBLED CRIME LAB.
WAVE OF HATE CRIMES HITS U.S.; OTHER STATES SHOULD FOLLOW SHERIFF'S, LAPD'S LEAD IN RESPONDING TO RACIALLY MOTIVATED VIOLENCE.
FBI TURMOIL ADDS CAUTION TO TWA CASE.
7 CHARGED IN PLOT TO BOMB FBI CENTER.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2017 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters