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FBI Issued Flawed Bombing Analysis, U.S. Probe Finds

Law enforcement: Lab's 'unsound' conclusions favor prosecutors in Oklahoma City trial, draft report states. Case isn't expected to be compromised, agency chief says.

March 22, 1997|RICHARD A. SERRANO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The Justice Department inspector general's office has determined that the FBI crime laboratory made "scientifically unsound" conclusions in the Oklahoma City bombing case, finding that supervisors approved lab reports they "cannot support" and many analyses were "biased in favor of the prosecution."

The still-secret draft report, obtained by The Times, also concludes that FBI lab officials may have erred about the size of the blast and the amount of explosives involved and may not know for certain that ammonium nitrate was used for the main charge that killed 168 people and injured more than 850 others.

The draft report shows that FBI examiners could not identify the triggering device for the truck bomb or how it was detonated on April 19, 1995, and it warns that a poorly maintained lab environment could have led to contamination of critical pieces of evidence, such as debris found on the clothing of defendant Timothy J. McVeigh.

If entered into evidence at McVeigh's trial, scheduled to begin March 31, the draft report could provide a measure of doubt about whether bomb residue evidence was properly handled and professionally examined by experts at the Washington lab. Forensic evidence is an important element of the government's largely circumstantial case against McVeigh and co-defendant Terry L. Nichols.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday March 23, 1997 Home Edition Part A Page 3 Metro Desk 1 inches; 28 words Type of Material: Correction
FBI lab report--A graphic in Saturday's editions incorrectly reported the source of a draft report on problems in the FBI crime lab. The source was the Justice Department inspector general's office.

The FBI has refused to comment until the report is in its final form, which is expected next month. That final report is likely to be adjusted to reflect FBI responses to the conclusions in the draft.

FBI Director Louis J. Freeh has told Congress, however, that the bureau does not believe the final report will compromise any pending cases.

Aside from its impact on the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, the report raises serious questions about the integrity of FBI supervisors, particularly James T. Thurman, who as chief of the lab's Explosives Unit (EU) played a key role in overseeing the examination of forensic evidence.

"We are deeply troubled that in a case of this importance and magnitude, the EU chief did not take greater care in making his supervisory review," the report says.

The Justice investigation began after complaints were made by Frederic Whitehurst, an FBI chemist and the principal whistle blower on problems at the lab. While confirming many accusations made by Whitehurst and others, the report also knocks down a number of Whitehurst's charges. "We conclude that Whitehurst's numerous other contentions lack merit," the report states.

That determination could endanger a crucial part of McVeigh's defense strategy, particularly since his attorneys have been relying heavily on Whitehurst's allegations and may call him to the stand as a witness for McVeigh. The report also could lead to a bitter legal fight over its admissibility at the trial.

The draft is so tightly held--and so potentially important to the case--that U.S. District Judge Richard P. Matsch took the unusual step last month of signing a written order strictly prohibiting either side from discussing the report or providing it to others.

He also ruled that the lawyers were not to use the draft version of the report in pretrial hearings or during the McVeigh trial "in any form or for any purpose whatsoever."

Because of the admonition, attorneys on both sides have refused to comment on the crime lab investigation. However, prosecutors have advised the judge that they expect some of their lab findings to withstand defense challenges in court.

The inspector general's office began its investigation in 1996 after Whitehurst prevailed in insisting that an outside review panel should study whether the laboratory was living up to its once-vaunted reputation as the premier scientific examination arena in the world.

The investigation has triggered a firestorm in Washington. Senior officials at Justice have suggested that as many as 50 criminal cases around the country might be affected by the inspector general's findings. And several Republican congressmen have launched sharp attacks at Freeh over his management.

The FBI has announced a series of improvements at the facility, including plans to relocate the lab from FBI headquarters in downtown Washington to the bureau's training academy in Quantico, Va. The bureau also revealed, after receiving the Jan. 21 draft report, that Whitehurst and three other lab officials are being transferred out of the facility.

The other three are Thurman, David Williams, a supervisory agent in the explosives unit, and Roger Martz, chief of the chemistry unit--all of whom had important roles in examining Oklahoma City evidence.

Williams came under some of the harshest criticism by the inspector general. The draft report says that his analyses "are scientifically unsound, are not explained in the body of the report and are biased in favor of the prosecution."

The inspector general singled out Williams' Sept. 25, 1995, report on his lab tests of Oklahoma City evidence.

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