I’ve been writing about problems in the FBI crime lab since 1997, when Playboy published my exposé, “Bad Blood at the FBI.”
The piece exposed the manipulation of evidence in several big cases, focusing on the long and frustrating efforts of FBI Supervisory Special Agent Fredric Whitehurst, a senior explosives expert with a PhD in chemistry, to rid the lab of incompetent and corrupt examiners.
At the time, the FBI lab had spent years fending off critics who said the lab’s lack of outside accreditation was a scientific and criminal scandal. Its reaction to Whitehurst’s revelations was, of course, to try to discredit him. He was virtually frog-marched out of the FBI's J. Edgar Hoover Building headquarters, put under investigation for leaks.
In a later story of mine, Whitehurst raised suspicions that his home had been burgled and bugged.
Whitehurst did accomplish one of his goals, however. After forcing him out, the FBI and Justice Department finally relented and sought outside accreditation. And they announced they would undertake a through investigation of criminal cases where FBI “expert” testimony had wrongly condemned defendants to long sentences, including death row.
Thanks to a masterful investigation last week by The Washington Post’s Spencer S. Hsu, however, we now know that the FBI-DoJ investigation was a sham.
Oh, sure, they investigated, and found plenty of wrongdoing. But guess what? The Justice Department and its prosecutors failed to inform the affected defendants, except in the most cursory and cryptic manner, that they had been wronged.
In other words, they swept their criminal misconduct under the rug. In a number of cases they left men to rot -- Is there any other word for it? -- in jail. In Washington, D.C. alone, "more than a hundred cases" needed to be reviewed "because of potentially falsified and inaccurate tests by FBI analysts, The Washington Post's Keith Alexander reported two years ago.
The proper reaction to this injustice is outrage. In a more perfect world, Congress and the White House would direct the formation of a new commission, this one to recommend charges, where warranted, against responsible officials and criminal prosecutors.
Alas, the world is not perfect. And it's too late to help dead men or others, now free, who spend decades behind bars.
But accreditation, obviously, has not solved the problem. (See also Lowell Bergman’s excellent Apr. 17 PBS Frontline piece, "The Real CSI," on the dismal state of forensic “science,” the criminal law world’s version of the Flat Earth Society.)
State crime labs are a mess, as I and many others have reported through the years.
Bottom line: The police simply refuse to be policed. They covet their junk science, because junk science gets the results they want.
As soon as it is practicably possible, crime labs should taken away from the police. The vaunted FBI crime lab should be shut down and paddle-locked.
Evidence should be given to outside examiners who have no connection to, and interest in, the outcome of a case. In that more perfect world, they would not even know what they were working on--except the evidence.
That’s what we call fair play. Last time I checked, it was also -- pardon me -- The American Way.