Mistakes found at FBI lab Agency's experts gave inaccurate testimony at trials, inspector finds

Cases are being reviewed

Report could affect McVeigh prosecution in Okla. City blast

April 16, 1997|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- FBI crime laboratory experts gave inaccurate testimony at trials -- including those of suspects in the World Trade Center blast -- and lab scientists and technicians did shoddy work in scores of other cases, the Justice Department's inspector general concluded yesterday.

Those findings, coupled with serious problems in the way lab officials conducted themselves in the Oklahoma City bombing and the O. J. Simpson case, are part of an 18-month investigation into failures at the lab at FBI headquarters.

The report could have major implications for the trial of Oklahoma City bombing suspect Timothy J. McVeigh because it tends to bolster defense arguments that lab work on key pieces of forensic evidence was compromised. However, prosecutors plan to use scientific experts from outside the lab to testify.

In addition to conclusions about how lab officials have performed in court, the inspector general also found that the bureau's scientists and technicians did not properly document their test results and prepared lab reports poorly.

Reacting quickly to the report, senior FBI management officials accepted responsibility for the failings, and revealed that they have created a task force to review hundreds of criminal cases that may have been affected by shoddy FBI lab work.

While top federal law enforcement officials expressed confidence that those and other cases will move forward, defense attorneys are expected to seize on the revelations in attempts to exonerate their clients.

Justice Department and FBI officials pointed out that most of the hundreds of allegations by the key whistle-blower, lab chemist Frederic Whitehurst, were not substantiated.

But Inspector General Michael R. Bromwich added that "some important" allegations made by Whitehurst were substantiated, including some related to the case against McVeigh, in which jury selection is under way.

Overall, in investigating work at the lab's three key sections, the chemistry-toxicology, explosives and materials analysis units, Bromwich said: "We found significant instances of testimonial errors, substandard analytical work, and deficient practices."

Investigators also discovered instances where dictation on lab reports was altered and lab supervisors did not properly manage their agents.

Bromwich and his staff, which included five scientists from outside the federal government, listed 40 recommendations for improving the lab, and the FBI said it had either adopted or would soon be embracing all of them.

Among the key improvements will be a new lab facility at the bureau's training academy in Quantico, Va., a new lab director from outside the bureau, and -- for the first time in the lab's 65-year history -- outside accreditation from the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors.

"This isn't a pleasant one for me," FBI Deputy Director William Esposito said of the inspector general's report. "We regret we got to this point in the FBI."

But Esposito noted that most of the lab's tests on 600,000 cases a year were not called into question.

Among the cases reviewed by the inspector general:

The World Trade Center explosion of Feb. 26, 1993, which killed six people. David Williams of the lab's explosives unit testified "beyond his expertise" and "in a way that made the testimony appear tailored to the most incriminating result," investigators said.

The bombing of Avianca Flight 203 shortly after takeoff in Colombia on Feb. 27, 1989, in which 107 people, including two Americans, died.

Richard Hahn, a lab expert, gave scientific opinions about the blast that were "unsound and not justified by his experience" and "incomplete results" about some of the lab analyses of the evidence, the report said. He also "testified incorrectly and outside his expertise concerning a fuel-air explosion."

The O. J. Simpson case. The inspector general concluded that one agent was ill-prepared and showed "deficient" record-keeping and note-taking practices. The agent "poorly represented the laboratory and the FBI in this case," the inspector general said.

Pub Date: 4/16/97

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