FBI was biased on bombing analysis, report says Lab findings on Okla. case favored prosecution

errors may have hurt evidence

March 22, 1997|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- The Justice Department inspector general's office has determined that the FBI crime laboratory made "scientifically unsound" conclusions in the Oklahoma City bombing case, finding that supervisors approved lab reports they "cannot support" and many analyses were "biased in favor of the prosecution."

The still-secret draft report, obtained by the Los Angeles Times, also concludes that FBI lab officials may have erred about the size of the blast and the amount of explosives involved and may not know for certain that ammonium nitrate was used for the main charge that killed 168 people and injured more than 500 others.

The draft report shows that FBI examiners could not identify the triggering device for the truck bomb or how it was detonated on April 19, 1995, and it warns that a poorly maintained lab environment could have led to contamination of critical pieces of evidence, such as debris found on the clothing of defendant Timothy J. McVeigh.

If entered into evidence at McVeigh's trial, scheduled to begin March 31, the draft report could provide a measure of doubt about whether bomb residue evidence was properly handled and professionally examined by experts at the Washington lab. Forensic evidence is an important element of the government's largely circumstantial case against McVeigh and co-defendant Terry L. Nichols.

The FBI has refused to comment until the report is in its final form, which is expected next month. That final report is likely to be adjusted to reflect FBI responses to the conclusions in the draft.

However, FBI Director Louis J. Freeh has told Congress that the bureau does not believe the final report will compromise any pending cases.

Aside from its impact on the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, the report raises serious questions about the integrity of FBI supervisors, particularly James T. Thurman, who as chief of the lab's Explosives Unit (EU) played a key role in overseeing the examination of forensic evidence.

The Justice investigation began following complaints by Frederic Whitehurst, an FBI chemist and the principal whistle-blower on problems at the lab. While confirming many accusations made by Whitehurst and others, the report also knocks down a number Whitehurst's charges. "We conclude that Whitehurst's numerous other contentions lack merit," the report states.

That determination could endanger a crucial part of McVeigh's defense strategy, particularly because his attorneys have been relying heavily on Whitehurst's allegations and may call him to the stand as a witness for McVeigh.

The report could also lead to a bitter legal fight over its admissibility at the trial.

The draft is so tightly held -- and so potentially important to the case -- that U.S. District Judge Richard P. Matsch took the unusual step last month of signing a written order strictly prohibiting either side from discussing the report or providing it to others.

He ruled that the lawyers were not to use the draft version of the report in pretrial hearings or during the McVeigh trial "in any form or for any purpose whatsoever."

The report also addressed the accuracy of the primary whistle-blower, Whitehurst, and sharply criticized him for raising concerns that could not be substantiated. That characterization follows earlier FBI findings that Whitehurst often relied on rumors, spread false innuendoes and "thinks no one has more credibility than himself."

The draft report dismisses his allegations that dictated lab notes were incomplete or inaccurate, as well as his suggestion that a secondary explosion may have followed the main blast.

Also discounted was Whitehurst's contentions that signs of "pitting and cratering" on the Ryder truck's rear door latch, found the scene, suggested that the bomb actually exploded at a much higher velocity.

As they did with many other Whitehurst allegations, the inspector general's report says, simply, about the door latch: "Whitehurst is incorrect."

Pub Date: 3/22/97

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