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U.S. probe: FBI lab work flawed // FLORIDA CONVICTIONS

Two high-profile Florida cases, the impeachment of former Judge Alcee Hastings and the "Mensa Murder" conviction, were thrown into doubt Tuesday as part of a scathing Justice Department review of faulty FBI crime lab procedures.

After an 18-month investigation, Inspector General Michael Bromwich found scores of "egregious" mistakes and sloppy procedures in the crime lab and misleading court testimony that tended to be biased against the defendants.

The two FBI agents involved in the Florida cases should be disciplined, the report recommends.

In 1991, George Trepal, a member of the high-IQ Mensa society, was convicted of the 1988 murder of his neighbor Peggy Carr, a 41-year-old Polk County waitress. He was accused of adding the highly toxic heavy metal thallium to seven Coke bottles and sneaking them into the Carr family's home in Alturas.

After drinking the soda, Carr slipped into a three-month coma and died. Other Carr family members also drank from the poisoned bottles, and two of them were hospitalized.

The Justice Department report questions the complex science that the prosecution used to convict Trepal.

It charges that Roger Martz, an FBI chemical examiner, was sloppy in his research and that he "overstated the significance" of his findings in testimony.

The report recommends demotion and a possible transfer for Martz, saying he "lacks the judgment and credibility" to supervise the chemistry-toxicology unit.

Martz had testified that his analysis of the Coke samples showed evidence of thallium nitrate _ a chemical compound that investigators later found in a bottle at Trepal's garage.

But the new report charges that Martz's conclusion was based on "incomplete data," including the testing of only two of the three available Coke samples. That casts doubt over whether the thallium found in the Coke was actually a thallium nitrate compound.

In its response to the report, the FBI said it supports Martz's expertise and his findings in the case. There were "certain deficiencies" with Martz's research, but his conclusion ultimately was correct, the FBI said.

As a result of the report, Trepal, who is awaiting execution on Florida's death row, will seek a new trial, his attorney said.

"This has a potentially tremendous impact" on the case, said Todd Scher, a Miami-based lawyer with Capital Collateral Representatives, the state agency that represents death row inmates. "This scientific evidence was the cornerstone of the state's case."

In November, a circuit judge rejected Trepal's appeal of his sentence. The Florida Supreme Court upheld Trepal's conviction and sentence, and the U.S. Supreme Court has refused to hear the case. Scher says the charges of FBI errors will be "much more likely" to win Trepal a new trial.

The Justice Department "may not use the word "perjury' or "intent' . . . but there's no question (Martz) affected the facts of the case," Scher said.

Still, the prosecutor in the case predicts the government's findings will not warrant a new trial.

"In my view, nothing's going to happen to the case," said John Aguero, a prosecutor in the Polk State Attorney's Office. "Thallium was in the Coke _ there's still no question about that."

In the Hastings case, investigators concluded that FBI agent Michael Malone "testified falsely and outside his expertise" when he appeared before a judicial committee that recommended impeachment. Specifically, Malone told the panel that he had performed tests on a leather strap that became part of Hastings' alibi.

In reality, Malone did not conduct the test and when another agent, William Tobin, wrote to his supervisor describing a litany of discrepancies, Tobin's report was tucked in a drawer.

"We cannot understand the laboratory's failure to further investigate the allegations that Tobin made regarding Malone's testimony," the inspector general wrote. If FBI supervisors had pursued the matter it "could have resulted in appropriate administrative discipline and conceivably a referral for investigation for possible criminal misconduct."

Still, the FBI and Bromwich assert Malone's false testimony did not affect the outcome.

Hastings was astonished.

"An FBI agent lying before judges is perjury; an FBI agent taking someone's evidence sticker off and putting his name on it is tampering with evidence," he said Tuesday. "Lawyers get disbarred for that; people get put in jail for that. That alone should be enough for people to know I was done pretty damn wrong by the FBI."

The three-term Democrat from Miramar said investigators and the media mistakenly have focused on the leather strap.

"The leather strap is not the issue," he said, his voice rising. "The issue is an FBI agent lied before judges; that is the issue. It wouldn't have mattered if he was lying about a straw or an elephant; he lied and that's not right."

The Hastings saga began in 1981 when, as Florida's first black federal trial judge, he was indicted on bribery charges. From the outset, he has maintained his innocence and in February 1983, a Miami jury agreed. But a group of judges pressed for their own investigation and three years later sent a recommendation to Congress that Hastings be impeached.

In 1989, Congress stripped him of his judgeship and the accompanying salary and pension. Three years later, he became a member of the U.S. House.

Hastings said he is pressing for congressional hearings.

"It is not the end of the matter," he said.

FLORIDA CASES

ALCEE HASTINGS CASE

FBI examiner was found to have falsely testified he had performed a test on a leather strap, evidence key to the case.

THE MENSA MURDER

FBI chemical examiner's work on the murder case was found to be sloppy and his testimony inaccurate.

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