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.

By Andrew Cohen |  November 18, 2007; 8:22 PM ET
Previous: The Real Barry Bonds Outrage | Next: Terror Law Secrecy Lifts, Once, By Mistake

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The real problem is that the FBI is providing technicians as "experts" at all. While at one time, the FBI may have been the experts at evidentiary analysis, this is no longer the case. With biological evidence (ie, DNA fingerprinting, toxicology analysis) the techniques were neither developed by the FBI, nor is the work done by FBI laboratories (though the FBI does sponsor laboratories to develop new techniques).

I think the actual evidentiary analysis should no longer be part of the FBI's purview, and better peer review of common forensic techniques is long overdue. While this would seem an obvious area for an agency like the FBI to lead, they have clearly demonstrated a conflict of interest, being more interested in obtaining convictions than in objectively analyzing the evidence.

Posted by: TEL | November 19, 2007 01:43 PM

The vaunted FBI behaved disgracefully and nobody is called to account. Apparently, the FBI is run by a bunch of arrogant fools who don't give a damn about people who may have been wrongly severely punished on the basis of the FBI's scientifically baseless testimony.

Posted by: Mauvaise | November 20, 2007 09:45 AM

Does anybody really think that any federal agency will admit any problems as long as Bush is in office? This is the age of 'skewer your critics, ignore the truth'.

Posted by: hesthe | November 20, 2007 12:58 PM

I can't see where the lead analysis thing was ever credible. If I read it right the premise was that bullets poured from the same batch of lead where chemically identical. Wouldn't that amount to thousands of rounds in hundres of boxes? If the suspect had a box of bullets that matched the tested bullet wouldn't that still leave untold possibilities of boxes of bullets that matched? Would anyone who had a box bullets from the batch be suspect based on that?

Posted by: Vinson Nash | November 20, 2007 01:05 PM

The culture of ineptitude, disorganization, and petty turf proprietorship extends considerably farther back than 10 years. What's amazing is the number of directors who are supposedly going to fix the problems and get a new start. Hey! How about those FBI computers!

Posted by: Honore Plescom | November 20, 2007 03:22 PM

Louie Freeh is still in the building! The man who made it his primary mission to bring down Bill Clinton, while ignoring Al Qaeda and issues of inept management and neanderthal technical support (Email? Data collection? Why bother?), left an infected and defective agency for George Bush to ignore in his usual Alfred E. Newman fashion. No state DA should risk a prosecution on FBI lab testimony, while US Attorneys may have no alternatives.

Posted by: Glenn Becker | November 23, 2007 12:24 PM

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