FBI to review thousands of old cases for contaminated evidence
Months after the Washington Post revealed that lab technicians at the FBI mishandled evidence, resulting in at least three wrongful convictions, the Department of Justice has announced it will review of 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 who was released after DNA evidence proved his innocence, when he learned about Frederic Whitehurst, a lab chemist who blew the whistle on the FBI lab in the mid-1990s. Whitehurst said he watched colleagues contaminate evidence and, in court, overstate the significance of their matches.
“They were changing reports to alter the conclusions,” said David Colapinto, general counsel of the National Whistleblowers Center. “Some of it was sloppiness, but there was a whole host of problems.”
Those lab technicians, many of them agents, remained employed even after Whitehurst blew the whistle, Colapinto said.
At the time, Whitehurst told Larry King on CNN, “I dislike being called a whistleblower, I’m a law enforcement officer and if I see violations of the law abuses of authority corruption. I’m required to report those.”
The Justice Department did review thousands of cases after Whitehurst reported the problems, Colapinto said, but the findings were not published. Rather, Colapinto said, prosecutors who had originally tried those old cases decided whether the new evidence should be disclosed to the defense.
Dissatisfied with the Justice Department’s review, Whitehurst requested the findings through the Freedom of Information Act. Over several years, he received tens of thousands of pages.
Some changes were made, however. The FBI moved its lab from the FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover building in Washington, D.C. to a separate building in Quantico, Va.
The National Academy of Sciences recently pushed for further independence, however. The organization, made up of scientists from around the country, recommended the creation of an independent federal agency to review evidence. That agency should not be connected to law enforcement, the scientists said.
Whitehurst, now a criminal defense lawyer in North Carolina, and the National Whistleblowers Center worked with the Post for a year on the expose that came out in April. That story apparently pushed the Justice Department to conduct another, more transparent review of old evidence.
The Justice Department says that this time, the review will include outsiders such as the Innocence Project, according to The Associated Press. The Innocence Project, which focuses on exonerating the wrongfully convicted, would watch over the government’s review.
In a statement Wednesday, Whitehurst said, “Today marks a turning point for the wrongfully convicted and their families, but my work will not be over until every innocent victim is freed.”
The FBI did not respond to request for comment.