This cover story explored the FBI’s track record and specifically that of its director, Louis Freeh, at a time when the Bureau faced mounting questions over its competence. A recent Justice Department report had supported allegations by a FBI chemist of “sloppy and biased” forensics work. The agency also faced criticism over its treatment of Richard Jewell, a suspect in the bombing of the Atlanta Olympics — later completely exonerated — and for failing to figure out that an American CIA officer, Aldrich Ames, had been spying for the Russians until nine years later.
FRANK SESNO, CNN ANCHOR: And thanks for joining us. I’m Frank Sesno. Judy is off today.
It was supposed to happen just five days from now, which helped make the postponement of Timothy McVeigh‘s execution all the more dramatic for some and frustrating for others. Now, many questions are being asked: how did the FBI fail to turn over thousands of pages of documents to McVeigh’s attorneys? Why wasn’t that discovered until now? And will the convicted Oklahoma City bomber change his course and fight his execution?
By Spencer S. Hsu, Published: April 16, 2012
Officials started reviewing the cases in the 1990s after reports that sloppy work by examiners at the FBI lab was producing unreliable forensic evidence in court trials. Instead of releasing those findings, they made them available only to the prosecutors in the affected cases, according to documents and interviews with dozens of officials.
In addition, the Justice Department reviewed only a limited number of cases and focused on the work of one scientist at the FBI lab, despite warnings that problems were far more widespread and could affect potentially thousands of cases in federal, state and local courts.
As a result, hundreds of defendants nationwide remain in prison or on parole for crimes that might merit exoneration, a retrial or a retesting of evidence using DNA because FBI hair and fiber experts may have misidentified them as suspects.
Updated at 9:51 p.m. ET: Months after the Washington Post revealed that lab technicians at the FBI possibly exaggerated evidence, resulting in at least three wrongful convictions, the Department of Justice has announced it will review thousands of old cases.
The review, the largest in U.S. history, will focus on work by FBI Laboratory hair and fiber examiners since at least 1985, the Post reported.
In April, the Post wrote about two men who were convicted largely because of contaminated FBI hair analysis. A review of the evidence has since resulted in the release of both men.
A reporter at the Post had been working on a story about Donald Gates, a D.C. man released after DNA evidence proved his innocence, when he learned about Frederic Whitehurst, an FBI lab chemist who blew the whistle on the FBI Laboratory in the mid-1990s. Whitehurst said he watched colleagues contaminate evidence and, in court, overstate the significance of their matches.
When Whitehurst, a chemist with a doctoral degree from Duke, arrived at the FBI crime lab in 1986, the first thing he noticed was that the place was, as he called it, a pigsty. The equipment was outdated and there was a film of black soot coating the counters – a dust from the vents that the agents called “black rain.”
It surprised him, too, he said, that outsiders were allowed to tour the lab, which he said should have been a controlled environment.
When he raised these issues, a coworker told him, “Before you embarrass the FBI in a court of law, you’ll perjure yourself. We all do it.”
The FBI and DOJ had previously formed another task force in the ’90s to investigate flawed evidence, the Washington Post reported in April.
The FBI director from 1993 to 2001, Louis Freeh, launched that task force with then-Attorney General Janet Reno.
After nine years of working in secret, the unit neither published its reviews of specific cases nor informed potentially innocent defendants or their attorneys, according to the Post.