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    A Times Editorial

    Cleaning up the crime lab

    © St. Petersburg Times, published March 12, 2001


    One of U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft's first orders of business should be to pick up the rugs at prosecutors' offices around the country and see what has been swept under them.

    One mess he'll find is the fallout from the FBI's crime lab scandal. While investigators identified 3,000 federal and state cases, including 263 in Florida, in which prosecutions might have been compromised due to reliance on faulty lab-related evidence or inaccurate testimony, not one conviction has been overturned and not one lab examiner has been criminally charged.

    In a review of Florida cases, Times writer Sydney Freedberg uncovered a pattern of neglect on the part of prosecutors. Convictions flagged as possibly compromised by the work of the crime lab were never properly reviewed. What's more, at least four Tampa Bay area homicides have been compromised because of overstated testimony or other errors by retired hair and fiber examiner Michael Malone, whom the Justice Department never held accountable.

    Four years ago, a Justice Department inspector general report disclosed the deteriorated conditions in the FBI crime lab. The willingness of FBI special agent Frederic Whitehurst to come forward helped to uncover the disarray in the FBI's forensic unit, an operation that had enjoyed a reputation for excellence. Some agents held help-the-prosecution attitudes or engaged in sloppy record-keeping. The inspector general's report even included findings that some agents testified inaccurately or outside their areas of expertise in a way that assisted the government's cases.

    Following this revelation, then-Attorney General Janet Reno ordered her prosecutors to determine the extent to which the crime lab's work and staff distorted prosecutions. The lab reports were then sent back to local state and federal prosecutors' offices for a thorough review.

    Freedberg, however, found that reviews sometimes were cursory or played down the significance of the FBI lab work.

    When asked for records of the reviews, a number of state attorney's offices throughout Florida failed to produce anything indicating that these cases got meaningful attention. The Miami-Dade state attorney, for example, failed to produce a single record. Other offices didn't provide much more.

    Ashcroft should not let this matter drop. Forensic testimony is usually the most powerful and irrefutable evidence. It has the air of objective fact. Yet innocent men and women may be in prison because an FBI specialist decided to help out the prosecution rather than provide scientifically accurate information.

    The Justice Department has said at least 126 convictions throughout the country have been identified as problematic due to faulty lab work, but it refuses to disclose the names of those defendants. Why is the government keeping this information from the public? There is something seriously wrong when this many prisoners have had tainted trials yet not a single case has been retried.

    This scandal deserves more attention at the highest levels of government. Ashcroft should offer a public accounting of what happened in each problematic case, explaining fully why the defendants have not been granted a new trial. The attorney general also should account for those agents identified as having engaged in a pattern of offering inaccurate testimony. Why haven't any been criminally charged?

    Federal and state prosecutors also have an obligation to alert defendants and their attorneys in every case the Justice Department flagged as potentially tainted. It shouldn't be up to the prosecutors who tried these cases to determine whether the crime lab testimony affected the outcome of the trial. That is something for a judge to decide.

    This mess was not of Ashcroft's making, but it's his now -- and it's time for him to do some spring cleaning.

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