Different Decade, Same Story for Crime Lab
Somewhere, Frederick Whitehurst is saying: See? I told you so. People called Whitehurst a crank, and worse, when he blew the whistle on shoddy lab techniques (and correspondingly inaccurate lab results) at the Federal Bureau of Investigation more than a decade ago. Over and over again and to anyone who would listen, Whitehurst identified systemic problems within the lab and brought to the public's attention the malicious ways in which the agency tried to protect itself when cornered.
The feds made grand promises then that things would change. But here we are, 10 years later, still reading about how the FBI failed to tell judges and defense attorneys for years that it had abandoned a forensic test of bullets used in crimes. The FBI's negligence and cover-up may be keeping innocent men and women in prison.
Here are the main details of the still-developing story (as the Post and "60 Minutes" are reporting it): In 2004, the National Academy of Sciences declared "unreliable and potentially misleading" a commonly used forensic test known as the "comparative bullet-lead analysis." Bureau managers were promptly told about the problem -- that expert testimony from federal agents had been overstated -- but it took a year until the FBI abandoned the test.
The feds, however, failed to inform judges and defense attorneys that the government was backing away from the reliability of the tests. Instead, it tried to whisper the news in a misleading letter sent to defense attorneys in 2005. It pretended that it "still firmly supports the scientific foundation of bullet lead analysis" even though it really didn't.
Now the feds are saying all the same nice things they said 10 years ago -- about how the "FBI is committed to addressing" the issues raised by The Post and CBS. "It's the right thing to do," said John Miller, the assistant director of public affairs for the FBI. Actually, the "right thing to do" would have been to fully disclose the problems with the testing and then help judges and defense lawyers ensure that no defendants had been unfairly convicted. Again, this the government did not do.
Remember this story -- and the ones like Whitehurst's that have preceded it -- the next time government lawyers stand up in court and vouch for the accuracy and reliability of federal "experts" offering conclusions about the import of evidence. Remember it, too, when a Justice Department lawyer tells a federal judge that the executive branch is worthy of trust and deference in the legal war on terrorism because law enforcement officials have deemed someone to be a terror suspect.
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