WASHINGTON — FBI crime laboratory experts gave inaccurate testimony at the trials of defendants in the World Trade Center blast and the 1989 bombing of Avianca Flight 203 in Colombia, and lab scientists and technicians used shoddy analysis and did not follow procedures in scores of other cases, the Justice Department's inspector general concluded Tuesday.
Those findings, coupled with serious problems in the way lab officials conducted themselves in the Oklahoma City bombing and the O.J. Simpson case, are part of a sweeping, 18-month investigation into significant failures at the lab at FBI headquarters in Washington.
The report could have major implications for the trial of Oklahoma City bombing suspect Timothy J. McVeigh because it tends to bolster defense arguments that lab work on key pieces of forensic evidence was compromised. But prosecutors plan to use scientific experts from outside the lab to testify.
In addition to conclusions about how lab officials have performed in court, the inspector general also found that the bureau's scientists and technicians did not properly document their test results and poorly prepared lab reports.
Reacting quickly to the report, senior FBI management officials accepted responsibility for the failings at their once-unblemished crime lab and also revealed that they have created a special task force to review "hundreds" of past and pending criminal cases that may have been impacted by faulty and sometimes shoddy FBI lab work.
While top federal law enforcement officials expressed confidence that those and other cases will move forward, defense attorneys are expected to seize on the revelations in attempts to exonerate their clients.
In another development Tuesday, both Justice Department and FBI officials pointed out that the vast majority of the hundreds of allegations by the key whistle-blower, lab chemist and FBI agent Frederic Whitehurst were not substantiated.
Among the disproved allegations were Whitehurst's contentions that some lab examiners purposely shaded their results to help prosecutors, and that some of them knowingly committed perjury. But Inspector General Michael R. Bromwich added that "some important" allegations made by Whitehurst were substantiated, including some related to the Oklahoma City bombing case--in which jury selection is now underway for McVeigh's trial.
Overall, in investigating work at the lab's three key sections--the chemistry-toxicology, explosives and materials analysis units--Bromwich said: "We found significant instances of testimonial errors, substandard analytical work and deficient practices."
Investigators also discovered instances where dictation on lab reports was altered and lab supervisors did not properly manage their agents.
40 Recommendations to Improve Lab
Bromwich and his staff, which included five prominent scientists from outside the federal government, listed 40 recommendations for improving the lab, and the FBI said it had either adopted or would soon be embracing all of them.
Among the key improvements will be a new lab facility at the bureau's training academy in Quantico, Va., a new lab director from outside the bureau and--for the first time in the lab's 65-year history--outside accreditation from the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors.
"This isn't a pleasant one for me," FBI Deputy Director William Esposito said of the inspector general's report. "We regret we got to this point in the FBI."
But Esposito noted that with the lab conducting tests on 600,000 cases a year, the vast majority of its work was not called into question.
Bromwich stressed Tuesday that his office was never charged with determining whether the criminal justice system was compromised by poor FBI lab work. But he predicted that "there will be challenges" filed by defense attorneys, either to overturn convictions or to throw out pieces of evidence.
"There are many cases that are potentially implicated by the findings," he said. "We expect to see a lot of motions filed."
James M. Maddock, the FBI's inspector deputy general counsel, said the bureau has established a special team to investigate potential problems, and that it is now reviewing "several hundred" past cases.
Potential Problems Cited in 55 Cases
Meanwhile, prosecutors in about 55 pending criminal cases have been notified that there may be potential problems, he said.
In those 55, prosecutors have found it important enough to notify defense attorneys in about 25 cases. Of those, there have since been verdicts for the prosecution in 14, Maddock said, and motions for new trials have been denied.
Regarding the rest, he said, "we are confident we can work with the prosecutors to resolve these issues."
Bromwich's report does not say when or why the problems began at the lab, but some of the cases studied date back to the 1980s. As early as 1991, top FBI management was alerted to failures at the lab when it used a highly credited model designed by the ASCLD to identify deficiencies.