FBI forensic follies reveal flawed system

Bombs exploded last week in the bank and courthouse of Vallejo, Calif. A third bomb was discovered near the public library. The case was solved through classic police work: a combination of determining motives, gathering forensic evidence and dumb luck. The prime suspect was facing drug charges that could result in a life sentence, and the bombs were placed in locations that would disrupt the case. The bombs contained stolen dynamite, which could be traced to the original owner. The dumb luck came when the alleged mastermind behind the plot surrendered on Monday to face charges.
This classic approach to solving crimes is not always used, and scientific evidence often carries more weight. In many cases, a fingerprint, DNA sample or minute trace of gunpowder is presented as the ultimate damning evidence. But recent allegations about the inefficiency of the FBI’s forensics lab indicate that law enforcement needs to reemphasize multiple sources of evidence, and prosecution needs to place less faith in scientific testimony.
Investigating officers at the FBI have mishandled evidence, shipping sensitive pieces in paper bags and manila envelopes. At the crime lab, evidence from various cases was stored in the same space, leading to possible contamination. Chemists at the lab were unable to tell the difference between explosive forms of urea nitrate and a phony nonexplosive lab sample planted by a skeptical co-worker. And the report alleges that the scientists had a clear bias for the prosecution and were willing to overstate scientific data.
In recent years, technology has allowed criminal investigations to become increasingly dependent on scientific data. Fingerprints can be matched to FBI records through computer sorting rather than tedious work by hand. DNA can be identified in the smallest samples. For years the FBI crime lab was without equal in this kind of investigation, cracking tough cases by exhaustive scientific research. But that glowing reputation is disintegrating. Although the full report by the justice department’s inspector general has not been released to the public, enough information has surfaced to raise serious questions about the crime lab’s handling of important evidence.
FBI director Louis Freeh responded to the justice department’s report by reassigning three key lab supervisors and suspending Fredric Whitehurst, a chemist employed by the lab. Clearly the FBI is trying to re-establish its credibility, and Freeh’s actions may help the organization save face for a while. The shakedown of employees does little to get at the root of the problem, however. Moving supervisors suggests they have been doing inferior work, but who is replacing them? The problems seem more entrenched than a handful of managers. Most importantly, the FBI’s response to the allegations refuses to acknowledge that even with cutting-edge technology there is still room for doubt.
Although science continues to provide newer, better tools for criminal investigation, those advances are meaningless without an exhaustive drive for accuracy. Although the FBI and other law enforcement agencies must certainly hold their crime labs to a higher standard, they must also acknowledge that there’s more to proving a case than forensics.