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Misconduct Allegations Arise in FBI Lab Probe

by RICHARD A. SERRANO, Los Angeles Times

Inquiry: Workers tell of pressure to lie about their scientific findings.

High-profile cases could suffer.

Thursday, January 30, 1997

WASHINGTON--Justice Department investigators reviewing reported sloppiness at the FBI's vaunted crime laboratory here have turned up allegations of broader troubles: Lab officials say they were pressured by agents to lie about their scientific findings and that their conclusions were sometimes changed by supervisors to support criminal prosecutions.

The allegations emerged in dozens of interviews that the lab workers have given to officials of the Justice Department's Office of the Inspector General, which is completing an examination of a wide range of problems at the FBI headquarters lab.

Government summaries of many of the interviews show that a number of high-profile criminal cases, such as the Oklahoma City bombing and the Unabomber investigation, may suffer if federal courts later rule that key pieces of evidence have been put in jeopardy by poor lab work.

But other material provided to the inspector general's investigators, obtained by The Times this week, reveals that several former and current lab officials also allege conduct by FBI investigating agents and supervisors that raises fundamental questions about the integrity of some FBI employees.

The inspector general's report is not complete, however, and it is not known whether additional investigation will support these broader allegations. The documents nonetheless make it clear that top FBI officials realize that they have major problems at the laboratory.

This week, senior FBI officials announced that they will conduct their own review of the lab. In launching that examination, they also disclosed that three senior lab employees were being transferred, including the heads of the chemistry and explosives units. Two of the three are among the supervisors accused of changing the conclusions of lab workers.

The bureau also announced that it plans to improve its training procedures, to build a new lab facility at its Quantico, Va., training academy and to seek outside accreditation with the Laboratory Accreditation Board of the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors. Senior FBI officials have refused to comment on the allegations, indicating that they will address the concerns when the inspector general's report is released.

The FBI, created in 1908, has long regarded its crime lab as the best in the world. Its techniques are followed by forensic experts around the globe and by police forces across the United States. Stymied state and local investigators regularly send evidence to the lab for analysis.

Although problems at the facility are a blow to the FBI's image and operations, some Washington law enforcement sources said Tuesday that they do not expect major criminal cases to be scuttled by the problems. But any findings that undermine the quality of the lab's methods and conclusions undoubtedly would present defense attorneys in state and federal cases with new avenues to challenge evidence analyzed by the lab.

The lead whistle-blower in the matter is Frederic Whitehurst, a senior chemist who was suspended by the bureau this week--reportedly for speaking out publicly in general terms about shortcomings at the lab.

According to the summaries, Whitehurst told the inspector general about a "pattern" in high-profile cases in which unqualified lab personnel testified in court in areas of expertise that they did not have. "Incorrect results were going to the jury," he said. He said there were times when the bureau pressured him to prove guilt in some cases rather than just test evidence. Asked if he and others were encouraged to commit perjury, he said: "We all do it."

He also said that there were times when his dictation on lab reports was changed by other examiners without his knowledge, often to switch findings described as "consistent with" certain evidence of a crime to the more positive category "identified as."

Among those who changed his findings, he said, were David Williams, a supervisory agent in the explosives unit, and James T. Thurman, chief of the explosives unit. They are two of three officials transferred this week by the bureau. Steven Burmeister, a chief analyst in the lab's chemistry and toxicology units, told investigators that the lab "knowingly" has sent out false reports. He added that the lab's explosives unit has been "stretching the truth for years" and that there often was no supporting data for many of their findings.

Both Burmeister and Whitehurst alleged that some supervisors, including Williams, often "rearranged" the language in some reports. Rick Hahn, another lab analyst, said that if told what to say in his testimony, he parrots the testimony of other experts.

Whitehurst also alleged that the third official who was transferred, Roger Martz, chief of the chemistry unit, mishandled evidence in the Oklahoma City bombing investigation by testing debris before first following protocols for conducting microscopic examinations that are intended to keep evidence from being contaminated.

He said Martz did not even have a microscope in his office and that the official had placed some of the critical material in contaminated water.

The documents showed that other lab employees made allegations similar to those of Whitehurst, Burmeister and Hahn, although the other employees were not identified.

Whitehurst is expected to be an important defense witness for Timothy J. McVeigh, who goes on trial March 31 in the April 19, 1995, bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City. Defense attorney Stephen Jones has sharply challenged the way evidence was collected, handled and examined by the lab.

Whitehurst, Jones said Wednesday, "certainly may be an important figure in this trial." Federal prosecutors in the Oklahoma City case have chosen not to discuss the inspector general's report publicly or what impact, if any, it might have on the trials of McVeigh and co-defendant Terry L. Nichols. However, they are expected to oppose Whitehurst taking the stand as an expert witness for the defense.

In the summaries, lab personnel have told the inspector general that McVeigh's clothing was contaminated, and also that important bomb residue discovered at Nichols' home was mishandled. Some of the evidence against Nichols later had to be discarded, the documents said.

In another example of evidence contamination at the lab, Whitehurst alleged that Burmeister stored evidence together in one room that had been taken separately from the Oklahoma City bombing and the Unabomber case--raising the possibility that the evidence from both cases was cross-contaminated.

Copyright Los Angeles Times

Suggestion: send a copy of this article to Henry Hyde, Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, and again demand he look into the activities of the FBI and the Department of Justice in the Eastern District of Kentucky, in particular the high-profile case of the U.S. vs Charles Hayes.

Posted here January 30, 1997
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