Black Mark for FBI Lab May Taint Bomb Trials

Doubts may be raised about tests in Oklahoma City cases

Revelations about sloppy and unscientific work at the nation's premier crime laboratory are providing ammunition for defense attorneys preparing for trial this spring in the Oklahoma City bombing case.

As a result, the Federal Bureau of Investigation is facing the prospect of having its own crime lab put on trial in that case, much in the same way that the Los Angeles Police Department was put on trial in the O.J. Simpson murder case.

"I'm sure the attorneys will do their utmost to do as was done in the O.J. Simpson case, to turn the heat on the FBI to take it off their clients," says James Starrs, a professor of law and forensic science at George Washington University here.

Defense lawyers in the Oklahoma City case may have an advantage not enjoyed by Mr. Simpson's Dream Team. The closely-watched Simpson trial provided an education to the entire nation about some of the finer points of forensic investigation. Many prospective jurors will arrive at court with a framework for skepticism, legal experts say.

If jurors suspect that investigators acted improperly or unethically in even a small portion of the case, it could jeopardize the entire case, says Drew Findling, a defense lawyer based in Atlanta who has handled a number of technical forensic cases. "If part of it smells, the jury may think the whole thing is rotten," he says.

The full extent of the problems at the FBI forensics crime lab has not yet been disclosed as the Justice Department's Inspector General continues a year-long investigation. The lab does more than 600,000 tests a year for local, state, and federal law-enforcement agencies.

But legal experts say the matter is already raising serious questions about an arm of the agency that has historically enjoyed widespread public confidence.

"I think they have sacrificed a huge advantage," says Paul Rothstein, a professor at the Georgetown Law Center. "Everyone in the justice system, including defense lawyers, accepted the FBI [lab] as perfect and irrefutable. That has changed."

The internal inquiry was sparked by Frederic Whitehurst, an FBI forensic scientist and one of the bureau's top experts in explosives residue. He complained that agents and lab personnel were mishandling evidence and that their work was tainted by a pro-prosecution bias.

The Inspector General found enough substance to Mr. Whitehurst's accusations to prompt the reassignment last week of three FBI lab supervisors. One was in charge of the collection of explosives evidence after the Oklahoma City bombing.

In addition to the Oklahoma City case, the first World Trade Center bombing trial and an undisclosed number of other cases may be in jeopardy if the internal probe identifies substantial misconduct.

The brouhaha at the FBI lab comes at a time when the FBI itself is under a lingering cloud from a string of other embarrassments. They include the release to the Clinton White House of 900 supposedly confidential FBI background files on Republicans, the admission by a senior FBI official that he obstructed justice by shredding reports that incriminated the FBI in the 1992 shootout at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and the bureau's public pursuit of security guard Richard Jewell for last summer's still-unsolved Olympic Park bombing in Atlanta.

Defense attorneys in the Oklahoma City case not only will have access to the Inspector General's final report, but also will be able to subpoena anyone identified in the report as having made a mistake during the investigation.

Justice Department officials are hoping that by conducting a full investigation and taking remedial action, they will be able to mitigate the potential damage in the Oklahoma City case and other cases.

Mr. Starrs, who has taught forensics at the FBI, says he was not surprised by the recent disclosures about the FBI lab. He says the lab is burdened by excessive secrecy, a lack of proper oversight, and a management system that discourages independent, unbiased testing of evidence.

"The only work they are doing is for law enforcement, for the prosecution, and they get a mind-set that is anathema to the mind-set you should have as a scientist," Starrs says. "There are pressures imposed on them in their testing."

The professor says the FBI should abandon its policy of performing work only for prosecutors and should allow FBI forensic scientists to simply test potential evidence, whether it is useful to the defense or the prosecution.

Even without the controversy at the FBI lab, the Oklahoma City case poses challenges for forensic scientists, says Jay Siegel, assistant director of the School of Criminal Justice at Michigan State University. Ordinarily, he says, a crime scene is sealed off from any public access to prevent possible contamination of evidence. That wasn't possible in the hectic hours after the explosion as rescue crews worked around the clock to dig out survivors.

"If people are looking for perfection in a crime scene like that, they aren't going to find it," Mr. Siegel says.

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