Inspector General's Report Slams DOJ For Mishandling Its Investigation Of FBI Crime Lab Problems
from the better-a-bunch-of-innocent-people-languish-in-prison-than-anyone-be-held-account dept
When it comes to putting people in prison, it seems as if law enforcement can’t act fast enough. But when it comes to getting them out — especially after the uncovering of misconduct or malfeasance — there seems to be a distinct lack of urgency.
The Inspector General of the Justice Department has just released a report detailing the FBI’s foot-dragging response to crime lab issues first uncovered in 1996. This is the third report to follow up on the DOJ “task force” and its efforts to right the wrongs caused by “serious irregularities” in its lab.
The report made public Wednesday was the third since 1997 to follow up on irregularities at the famed FBI lab. The prior inspector general reports focused on lab problems. The new report focused on the Justice Department’s task force created to identify and follow up on the cases involving scientifically unsupportable analysis and overstated testimony by FBI Lab examiners.
The problems ultimately lead back to 13 examiners. But those problems were multitudinous. In total, these 13 took part in nearly 8,000 cases, 2,900 of which resulted in convictions. This discovery led to the appointment of a DOJ task force, which then led to… not much.
The new report said the Justice Department “failed to ensure that prosecutors made appropriate and timely disclosures to affected defendants” and that the department “failed to staff the Task Force with sufficient personnel to implement a case review of the magnitude it undertook.” The work took far too long, investigators said.
How did this lack of activity on law enforcement’s end add up for some of those affected?
[T]hree other defendants, Donald E. Gates, Santae A. Tribble, and Kirk L. Odom, had served sentences in excess of 21 years based in part on FBI hair analyses and testimony that DNA analysis subsequently proved erroneous.
The OIG drills down the specific failures of the DOJ task force, as well as those who were supposed to be cooperating with the investigation.
[D]espite some effort by the Task Force to segregate for priority treatment cases involving defendants on death row, the Department and the FBI did not take sufficient steps to ensure that the capital cases were the Task Force’s top priority. We found that it took the FBI almost 5 years to identify the 64 defendants on death row whose cases involved analyses or testimony by 1 or more of the 13 examiners. The Department did not notify state authorities that convictions of capital defendants could be affected by involvement of any of the 13 criticized examiners. Therefore, state authorities had no basis to consider delaying scheduled executions.
No problem. Just death on the line. No need to push the disputed cases to the front of the line. Not even if it kills someone who would have been exonerated.
As a result, one defendant (Benjamin H. Boyle) was executed 4 days after the 1997 OIG report was published but before his case was identified and reviewed by the Task Force. The prosecutor deemed the Lab analysis and testimony in that case material to the defendant’s conviction. An independent scientist who later reviewed the case found the FBI Lab analysis to be scientifically unsupportable and the testimony overstated and incorrect.
Two other capital defendants were executed (Michael Lockhart in 1997 and Gerald E. Stano in 1998) 2 months and 7 months, respectively, before their cases were identified for Task Force review as cases involving 1 or more of the 13 examiners. Although we found no indication in the Task Force files that the Lab analyses or examiners’ testimony were deemed material to the defendants’ convictions in these cases and, according to the FBI, the OIG-criticized examiner found no positive associations linking Lockhart or Stano to the crimes for which they were convicted and executed, the Task Force did not learn this critical information before the executions so that appropriate steps could have been taken had the analyses or testimony been material to the convictions and unreliable.
There’s a lot more bad news in the report, but nothing really tops the FBI contributing to the death of at least one innocent person. This isn’t something that was uncovered after the execution. This information came to light in 1996, but no one involved made any attempt to prioritize affected convictions. Innocent people died or were locked away for years and yet, the DOJ portrays itself as the injured party.
“Decades ago, the FBI corrected the deficiencies that led to the creation of the Task Force,” the department noted in its official response, adding that the Task Force’s work was “unprecedented both in its magnitude and its complexity.”
Lab examiner Michael Malone’s work led to someone being falsely imprisoned for 27 years. He also contributed faulty work that resulted in the overturning of five other convictions. Malone retired in 1999, but was still working for the FBI as a contractor (performing background checks). The OIG’s review finally led to his termination of his employment with the FBI… on June 17, 2014.
According to the evidence gathered by the OIG, the FBI greatly contributed to the inability of the task force to do its job in a timely fashion, with a majority of reviewed cases being returned to the DOJ more than 14 months after the FBI obtained them. Some, including capital cases, were held onto for as long as two years.
What the FBI plans to do in the future to prevent more injustices is yet to be seen. The OIG suggests it partner with the opposite end of the spectrum for best results.
We encourage the Department and the FBI to consider working with defense organizations, such as the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers or entities which work to ensure protection of defendants’ rights, such as the Innocence Project and the American Civil Liberties Union, to ensure a comprehensive and effective plan designed to achieve maximum and effective notice to all potentially affected individuals.
This will hopefully give the DOJ and FBI some more insight into what it’s like for the other side whose best efforts to defend the accused are undermined by shoddy lab work or the withholding of exculpatory evidence. What it absolutely doesn’t do, though, is give Benjamin Boyle back his life, or add years of extra life to those who gave up a decade or two of theirs while locked away for crimes they didn’t commit.