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Decades after FBI lab scandal, attorneys reviewing old Tampa Bay murder cases

Published Dec. 30, 2014

In the latest fallout from an old FBI scandal, the U.S. Department of Justice recently has contacted attorneys throughout the Tampa Bay area to let them know of possible problems in some very old murder cases.

For example, the Justice Department recently contacted the Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender's Office about Gerald Tyrone Caesar King, who was convicted of smothering a woman to death in December 1989.

The letter admitted the FBI's conclusions about a hair sample used in that murder trial "exceeded the limits of science and were, therefore, invalid."

And the Public Defender's Office has received about 10 similar letters, said Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Bob Dillinger.

He said his office will carefully review the cases, but it's a time-consuming process. "They're giving me cases from the '80s. It would have been nice to have it a little sooner," he said.

Defense attorney John Trevena got a similar letter regarding Daniel McCabe, convicted in 1990 of bludgeoning a 72-year-old man to death in St. Petersburg. The Justice Department letter said an "analysis containing erroneous statements was used in this case."

He too was surprised to get the letter out of the blue two decades after the trial.

In Hillsborough County, Public Defender Julianne Holt also has received numerous similar letters and is evaluating each one.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys say it's too early to know if these letters will result in efforts to seek new trials for the people convicted of the crimes. Even if one piece of evidence turns out to be faulty, it wouldn't necessarily change the outcome of a trial in which the rest of the evidence was rock-solid.

So it's way too soon to know if the information ultimately could release any Tampa Bay defendants from prison.

But Dillinger said he is strongly considering the King case, and will evaluate many of the other cases personally.

In spite of the FBI's impressive reputation and extensive expertise, this is not the first time the federal crime-fighting agency has been mired in embarrassing questions about its methods.

In the case of hair analysis, FBI lab experts testified in hundreds of cases about hair samples and how they could be tied to individuals accused of crimes. But the science of making these matches was later called "highly unreliable" by the National Academy of Sciences.

After an 18-month investigation, the FBI's inspector general reported in 1997 finding "serious and significant deficiencies'' in FBI lab work, leading to scientifically flawed and inaccurate testimony. This and other reviews led the Justice Department to review old criminal cases to see if suspect work resulted in improper convictions.

The Tampa Bay Times wrote in 2001 that, "the process for investigating flawed cases is flawed. Florida cases get lost in a bureaucratic morass." And the Washington Post reported in 2012 that while the Justice Department knew flawed forensic work might have led to convictions of potentially innocent people, "prosecutors failed to notify defendants or their attorneys even in many cases they knew were troubled."

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Last year, authorities announced a much more comprehensive approach to investigating the old cases.

The Justice Department is now working with the National Association for Criminal Defense Lawyers and the Innocence Project to scrutinize more than 2,000 cases nationwide involving FBI hair analysis. The groups said this review followed the discovery of three men whose convictions were based partly on FBI hair analysis, and who were later exonerated by DNA testing.

In Pinellas County, preliminary hearings have been conducted in at least one of the cases in question, that of King.

He was convicted in 1989 of killing a 41-year-old woman who was found raped and smothered to death in a mobile home in the High Point area. About a month earlier, she had reported to police that King had raped her and smothered her to the point of fainting.

When the Justice Department's letter raised questions about the case, attorneys began looking into it and noticed another potential problem. An earlier review suggested conducting DNA testing on some of the evidence recovered at the time of the crime, but there was no record in the official file of the DNA test.

Assistant State Attorney William Loughery, who prosecuted the case in 1989 and is now reviewing it, said the problem was simply that the DNA test results had not been placed in the correct file. The tests did not provide additional evidence that challenged the conviction, he said.

But all sides said they still have a lot to investigate, to get to the bottom of this case and others.

Information from the Washington Post and Philadelphia Inquirer was included in this report. Contact Curtis Krueger at ckrueger@tampabay.com or (727) 892-8232. Follow @ckruegertimes.