PUBLIC CONFIDENCE in the FBI's famous crime laboratory is bound to be shaken by an inspector general's report disclosing "testimonial errors, substandard analytical work and deficient practices" by forensic scientists whose findings were relied upon in the prosecution of hundreds of criminal cases. The disclosure could affect the Oklahoma City bombing trial now at the jury-selection stage as well as the conviction of Muslim fundamentalists in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.
Ever since the laboratory was opened by J. Edgar Hoover in 1932 it has been considered a reliable element in the criminal justice system. Even defense attorneys often figured they could depend upon its impartiality and expertise. No more. Hundreds of cases will probably be reopened. FBI expert witnesses can expect tougher and more skeptical grilling.
The notion that an unknown number of innocent persons might have been wrongly convicted on the basis of FBI lab testimony and evidence is a chilling thought. The same day the FBI was acknowledging serious shortcomings, the Wall Street Journal came up with a report casting doubt on a murder conviction that relied on the questionable findings of a lab agent specializing in hair and textile evidence.
Attorney General Janet Reno insists the FBI lab can still produce "unbiased analyses that will help solve crimes, punish the guilty and exonerate the innocent." But in reviewing some 500 cases cited in the inspector general's report, her staff found 55 instances -- more than 10 percent of the total -- in which lab examiners might have erred. In 25 of these cases, the department found it necessary to notify defense attorneys of exculpatory evidence. While there has been no change in the outcome of 13 cases that actually came to trial, there is no telling what might still come to light.
The agency, once feared and seemingly impregnable, has seen its reputation diminish almost as rapidly as the much-troubled CIA. The FBI allowed the Clinton White House to misuse its personnel files. It hounded and wrongly implicated a suspect in the Atlanta Olympics bombing. But nothing, to date, is as profound and troubling as the charge that some of its agents did sloppy work or testified with a prosecution bias that resulted in the conviction of innocent persons.
To regain the public's trust, the Justice Department must institute fundamental reforms that are not only real -- but are seen to be real.
Pub Date: 4/17/97