The U.S. Department of Justice has quietly launched an ivestigation into the methods used by the FBI's Alexandria field office to handle crucial trial evidence as a result of stinging criticism of those methods made by a federal judge last month during a murder trial.
A Justice Department spokesman termed the investigation "a routine audit," but one U.S. official familiar with the investigation said he never had known of such an inquiry before. He termed the action by the Justice Department as "highly unusual."
The purpose of the probe is to see whether the Alexandria office of the FBI followed the FBI's own procedures for handling trial evidence, or whether those procedures were violated and short-circuited, according to a source. Trials sometimes have been lost or overturned on the basis of the way evidence is handled, legal sources said.
An FBI official in Alexandria said he had no knowledge of the probe and defended the work of his agents as proper.
Last month U.S District Judge Robert R. Merhige attacked in open court the FBI's handling of evidence in the murder trial of two men convicted of killing an inmate at the Lorton Correctional Facility. "Well, son, I tell you it's a weak chain of custody," Merhige told a prosecutor in front of the jury during the trial. "I am really shocked and surprised."
Merhige was referring to the legal techniques by which evidence had been gathered, stored and presented in court. Under the federal system, that function is delegated to the FBI, which acts under the supervision of the local U.S. attorneys' office.
Merhige had wondered aloud at the fact that as many as 50 people had access to the evidence room of the FBI's Alexandria office, and indicated amazement when an agent testified that no records were kept of who entered and left the evidence room.
At one point, Merhige said that an agent had merely identified in court the bag that bullet fragments were kept in, and not the bullet fragments themselves. At another point, he said, an agent had failed to establish "chain of custody" at all.
As a result, Merhige ruled, prosecutors could introduce bullets and a gun found at the scene of the murder but could not contend that the bullets had come from that gun. Despite the limitation, the jury convicted Edward Ford (formerly Edward Ford Sharrieff) and Germain P. Stoddard of murder and conspiracy in the May 23 death of inmate Douglas M. Boney. Ford was sentenced this week to life in prison for murder, and received 15 years in prison for conspiracy. Stoddard was given a suspended 15-year conspiracy sentence and life in prison for murder, although he technically is ineligible for parole immediately because of procedures that Merhige invoked at sentencing. Both men are appealing their convictions.
The inquiry, by two investigators for the Justice Department's Justice Management Division, began last week in Richmond, and is expected to reach Alexandria next week. FBI officials, and prosecutors in the Alexandria U.S. attorney's office said they were unaware of the investigation, which was confirmed yesterday by Justice Department's Justice Management Division, began last week in Richmond, and is expected to reach Alexandria next week. FBI officials, and prosecutors in the Alexandria U.S. attorney's office said they were unaware of the investigation, which was confirmed yesterday by Justice Department spokesman Bob Stevenson.