A big case like the Oklahoma City bombing draws attention to criticism of the vaunted FBI crime laboratory. But it's only one instance, and the Justice Department has already informed some 50 prosecutors around the country about crime lab problems that could affect their cases.
Pro-prosecution bias is one of the allegations about the FBI lab's treatment of evidence that are being investigated by the department's inspector general. Last week a federal judge ordered that an unreleased draft report on the investigation be turned over to defense attorneys for Timothy McVeigh in the Oklahoma City case. Some predict the FBI will be placed on trial along with the defendant, as the Los Angeles Police Department was in the O.J. Simpson criminal trial.
Once again it has taken a whistleblower within an organization to bring forth ethical and legal questions that need to be answered for the public. Mismanagement and sloppy handling of evidence are among the allegations. Already, in Seattle, testimony about mishandled evidence has prompted prosecutors to drop an explosives charge against a man accused of plotting to kill federal agents.
Accurate evidence is essential both to protect the innocent from false prosecution and to protect the public from the guilty. If the FBI does not supply it, who on earth will? Whatever the findings in the inspector general's final report, the nation's premier crime-fighting organization must ensure that future lab work is worthy of the FBI name.