Unabomber News History

Copyright 1997 Plain Dealer Publishing Co.

The Plain Dealer

April 16, 1997 Wednesday, FINAL / ALL


LENGTH: 748 words





Some of the major criminal prosecutions in recent U.S. history relied on tainted FBI laboratory findings that were biased against defendants, the Justice Department inspector general said yesterday.

While clearing FBI lab officials of the most serious charges leveled by a whistleblower, the report presents a damning portrait of sloppy analysis and flawed trial testimony.

The inspector general found serious errors in the FBI lab's work in the World Trade Center bombing, the Oklahoma City bombing, the mail bomb death of a federal judge and "several hundred" other prosecutions ranging back to the late 1980s.

FBI Deputy Director Bill Esposito defended the "sensational work the FBI laboratory has done over the past 65 years" but admitted, "We're not happy to be at this point ... A good day is when we're not in the papers."

Attorney General Janet Reno said, "Today's report does identify significant instances of testimonial errors, substandard analytical work and deficient practices ... but the FBI laboratory is capable of performing its mission to provide ... unbiased analyses that will help solve crimes, punish the guilty and exonerate the innocent."

Justice Department inspector general Michael Bromwich outlined these findings:

Scientifically flawed testimony in several cases including the World Trade Center bombing, the Avianca airliner bombing over Colombia and at least one death penalty case.

Inaccurate testimony by an FBI lab technician in those cases and in the impeachment hearing of former federal judge Alcee Hastings.

Testimony "beyond the examiner's expertise" in many cases.

Scientifically flawed reports in the Oklahoma City bombing case and in the investigation into the mail bombing death of a federal judge in 1989.

Insufficient documentation of test results in hundreds of cases, including the Unabomber investigation.

Also, the report found that the explosives unit in the FBI lab was staffed with people who were poorly supervised and lacking needed skills.

The inspector general recommended that several agents be transferred out of the lab, that lab supervisors be replaced, that the FBI bring in an outside expert to run the explosives unit and that the lab submit to independent accreditation.

The 18-month probe, which culminated in yesterday's 500-page report, was set in motion in late 1995 when Frederic Whitehurst, an FBI scientist-agent who worked in the FBI lab's explosives unit went public with a wide range of charges.

While the final report substantiated many of Whitehurst's criticisms, it took a shot at him for exaggerating allegations and questioned his "common sense and judgment."

Whitehurst, who was placed on administrative leave earlier this year, is seeking his old job back, but the report concluded he "cannot effectively function within the laboratory" and suggested that the FBI consider what role, if any, he can usefully serve.

In the Oklahoma City case, the FBI lab report on the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building "contained several serious flaws ... all tilted in such a way to incriminate the defendants."

The FBI agent who wrote the lab report, David Williams, "failed to present an objective, unbiased and competent report," the Justice Department investigators said yesterday.

Timothy McVeigh's lawyer, Stephen Jones, said yesterday he had not read the report and couldn't comment. He has said he plans to use evidence that the FBI was biased to prove that McVeigh was set up as a scapegoat for the bombing.

Prosecutors wouldn't comment, but they already have removed the FBI's Williams from their witness list, and will have a British scientist present forensic evidence.

In the FBI lab report on the Oklahoma City bombing, Williams made several judgments that appeared to point directly to McVeigh and co-defendant Terry Nichols, but Williams slanted his findings based on other evidence against the two, the Justice Department IG found.

For example, Williams said the bomb was a mix of fertilizer and fuel, but he conceded that he reached that conclusion in large part because he knew Nichols had purchased diesel fuel and ammonium nitrate-based fertilizer prior to the blast.

"Without the evidence of these purchases, Williams admitted he would have been unable to conclude that [ammonium nitrate and fuel oil] had been used," the IG report said.

In fact, based just on the bomb site, Williams admitted "it could have been dynamite" that caused the explosion.

GRAPHIC: PHOTOS BY: ASSOCIATED PRESS; PHOTO 1: FBI whistleblower Frederick Whitehurst shown in a Sept 14, 1995, file photo, has been recommended for transfer out of the crime lab.; PHOTO 2: Justice Department Inspector General Michael Bromwich answers a question at a news conference held to address problems at the FBI's crime lab.