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FBI's Forensic Test Full of Holes
In response to the information uncovered by The Post and "60 Minutes," the FBI late last week said it would initiate corrective actions including a nationwide review of all bullet-lead testimonies and notification to prosecutors so that the courts and defendants can be alerted. The FBI lab also plans to create a system to monitor the accuracy of its scientific testimony.
The Post-"60 Minutes" investigation "has brought some serious concerns to our attention," said John Miller, assistant director of public affairs. "The FBI is committed to addressing these concerns. It's the right thing to do."
The past inaction on bullet-lead contrasts with the last time the FBI's science was called into question, in the mid-1990s, when 13 lab employees were accused of shoddy work and of giving overstated testimony involving several disciplines, including explosives as well as hair and fiber analysis. Back then, the Justice Department reviewed hundreds of cases in which FBI experts testified, and it notified prisoners about problems that affected their convictions. The government did so because prosecutors have a legal obligation to turn over evidence that could help defendants prove their innocence.
Current FBI managers said that they originally believed that the public release of the 2004 National Academy of Sciences report and the subsequent ending of the analysis generated enough publicity to give defense attorneys and their clients plenty of opportunities to appeal. The bureau also pointed out that it sent form letters to police agencies and umbrella groups for local prosecutors and criminal defense lawyers.
Even the harshest critics concede that the FBI correctly measured the chemical elements of lead bullets. But the science academy found that the lab used faulty statistical calculations to declare that bullets matched even when the measurements differed slightly. FBI witnesses also overstated the significance of the matches.
The FBI's umbrella letters, however, glossed over those problems and did little to alert prosecutors or defense lawyers that erroneous testimony could have helped convict defendants, one of the recipients said.
"Frankly, the letters that they sent them, you know, were minimizing the significance of the error in the first place," said defense lawyer Barry Scheck, whose nonprofit Innocence Project has helped free more than 200 wrongly convicted people. The letters said that "our science wasn't really inaccurate. Our interpretation was wrong. But the interpretation is everything."
The FBI said last week that the 2005 letters "should have been clearer." Scheck has now been asked to assist the FBI's review.
Since 2005, the nonpartisan Forensic Justice Project, run by former FBI lab whistle-blower Frederic Whitehurst, has tried to force the bureau to release a list of bullet-lead cases under the Freedom of Information Act. The Post joined the request, citing the public value of the information. But the government has stalled, among other things seeking $70,000 to search for the documents.
"By stonewalling and delaying the release, Justice has ensured that wrongfully convicted citizens are deprived of their right to appeal or seek post-conviction relief because the statute of limitations in many states has expired," said David Colapinto, the lawyer for the group.
As part of its review, the FBI will release all bullet-lead case files involving convictions.
The Scope of the Cases
Most of the estimated 2,500 instances in which the FBI performed bullet-lead exams involved homicide cases that were prosecuted at the state and local levels, where FBI examiners often were summoned as expert witnesses for the prosecution.