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Official: FBI lab criticism will prompt case challenges

fbi.crime.lab.investigation April 16, 1997
Web posted at: 9:28 p.m. EDT (0128 GMT)

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The FBI should brace for a flood of cases challenging convictions, because of a report criticizing the agency's crime lab, a Justice Department official told CNN.

"There's no doubt we'll see challenges in countless cases ... Most of those challenges will be frivolous," Justice Inspector General Michael Bromwich said.

Bromwich's report, released Tuesday, cited inaccurate and scientifically flawed testimony and evidence analysis at the lab that involve some high-profile prosecutions, including the Oklahoma City federal building and World Trade Center bombings.

Public defender says problem even more widespread

The lab "report serves as a wake-up call to Congress and the public to rein in the FBI's errant leadership," said Sen. Charles Grassley, the Iowa Republican who chairs a Senate subcommittee that oversees the FBI.

Judy Clarke, a federal public defender in Spokane, Washington, president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said the problem was more widespread than Bromwich concluded.

"The prevailing culture of the lab -- examiners not properly performing or documenting tests; preparing inaccurate reports, testifying about matters beyond their expertise and much more -- suggests that thousands of prosecutions may have been tainted," Clarke said.

Clarke is a defense attorney for Unabomb suspect Theodore Kaczynski, and her group is waging a court fight to gain access to Bromwich's draft report and other data from his investigation.

Bromwich: Damage should be limited

Bromwich conceded that the expected appeals may be a nuisance to law enforcement, but said the damage to prosecutions should be limited.

Future challenges to the convictions "won't have any merit to them, because they don't implicate any of the portions of the lab we found to have problems, nor is there solid evidence to believe there are problems in other parts of the lab," Bromwich said.

He emphasized that his investigation covered only three of 23 crime lab units. Bromwich, who has worked as a defense attorney, acknowledged Wednesday that not all challenges will prove to be frivolous.

"Some of them may be meritorious, but we won't know for some time how many cases this will ultimately affect."

Attorney General Janet Reno said Tuesday that prosecutors have turned over data to defense attorneys in 25 cases where the information may help clear their clients.

She said 13 of those cases had already gone to trial, and none of the outcomes have been affected so far.

Whistle-blowers protected

FBI whistle-blower Frederic Whitehurst, whose allegations triggered the investigation, told NBC's "Today" show Wednesday that "the report is a first step, but you have to go further and have outside oversight ... We need to open the laboratory up."

Whitehurst, who is trying to retain his job, may have scored a victory thanks to the White House. A memo surfaced Wednesday in which President Clinton ordered Reno to have the Justice Department set up appeal procedures for FBI whistle-blowers who expect retaliation.

"This is a major precedent," Steven Kohn, Whitehurst's attorney, said. "This will set up a procedure to protect all future FBI whistle-blowers."


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