Advertisement
  1. Archive

U.S. probe: FBI lab work flawed // NATIONAL IMPACT

@@9 The Justice Department has found flawed scientific practices at the FBI's crime laboratory that potentially have tainted dozens of criminal cases, including the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City.

Inspector General Michael Bromwich announced his findings Tuesday after an 18-month investigation that he said uncovered "extremely serious and significant problems" at a laboratory that 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 were rife with substandard performance that forced FBI officials to review several hundred 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 has said it intends to challenge the integrity of the FBI investigation and analysis of physical evidence.

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.

The report represented another blow to the reputation of the FBI and 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 because of a botched interview with a suspect in the Olympic Park bombing in Atlanta and the release of FBI background files to the White House.

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

Moreover, the report found that supervisors failed to supervise the examiners adequately, allowed indefensible conclusions to go unchallenged and left too much discretion to subordinates who reached findings that were unsupported by scientific evidence.

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."

The problems seemed most serious in two major cases: the bombing on Feb. 26, 1993, of the World Trade Center, which killed six people, and the bombing on April 19, 1995, of the federal building in Oklahoma City, which killed 168 people. A group of Islamic fundamentalists were convicted in the Trade Center case. Timothy McVeigh is on trial in Denver in the Oklahoma City bombing.

In the 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 non-scientific grounds and appeared to be tailored to correspond with his estimate of the amount of explosive used in the bombing."

Williams 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 speculation 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 work and that both 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 others in January in response to the inspector general's findings, said he tried to provide rapid scientific evaluations based on available information. He acknowledged he "overstated" his conclusions in a report on the Oklahoma bombing.

Bromwich found no instance in which laboratory examiners committed a crime or intentionally faked forensic evidence, obstructed justice or lied about findings in court. His inquiry did not reach conclusions about whether the flaws were damaging enough to overturn the outcome of any case.

YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE

Advertisement
Advertisement