Legal Issues

by Tim Cushing

Filed Under:
crime lab, doj, fbi

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.

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  • identicon
    Anonymous Anonymous Coward, 18 Jul 2014 @ 7:00pm

    Sorry, we're too busy...

    ...doing counter-terrorism now.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Groaker (profile), 18 Jul 2014 @ 7:26pm

      Re: Sorry, we're too busy...

      Should read "too busy doing terrorism," not too busy doing counter-terrorism." /s

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Anonymous Coward, 18 Jul 2014 @ 7:35pm

        Re: Re: Sorry, we're too busy...

        Oh, you are right!

        I was referring to their express purpose, as per the new high muckety-muck, rather than their actual practice.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    That One Guy (profile), 18 Jul 2014 @ 7:15pm

    Saving lives and protecting freedoms obviously not on the FBI's priority list

    Obviously they had different priorities. I mean, why bother with getting innocent people out of jail, or keeping them from being executed, when they could instead spend that time and money creating, then busting, their own fake 'terrorism' plots?

    That first one sounds like work, just not fun at all, whereas the second allows them to feel like big powerful terrorist fighters, all without any of the risk involved from dealing with actual terrorists.

    Hardly surprising then that they spent most of their time and energy on the second, giving the first, boring task, a pass. /s

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Groaker (profile), 18 Jul 2014 @ 7:21pm

    Things will get worse.

    There are no sigfificant controls on the executive branch any more. A couple of days ago the patent office decided it was not bound by rulings of SCOTUS. A couple of weeks ago the FBI decided that it was not answerable to Congress, and just walked out of hearings. This is apparently OK with Congress, because it made no use of any of its powers bring them back. Outright proven lying to SCOTUS and Congress doesn't even bring about the proverbial slap on the wrist.

    Even the lowliest cop on the beat has the power to create imaginary laws, and enforce them with beatings and murder. All the while lying in bringing charges. Or on the stand in the odd case that has been so flagrantly invented, as to be overtly unbelievable as to actually make it to a courtroom.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Starke (profile), 19 Jul 2014 @ 10:58am

      Re: Things will get worse.

      The Supreme Court has always been in a bit of a precarious position. Strictly speaking it has no real enforcement powers. If a lower court simply chose to the court's ruling, there isn't a mechanism the court can directly employ.

      Walking out on Congress is a horrible idea because if they piss them off enough, Congress can just start defunding them. But, the Supreme Court has no real recourse like that.

      We've even seen this with the CAFC getting cases thrown back in it's face over and over by SCOTUS. Now, CAFC hasn't simply up and decided that, "no, screw the Supreme Court." But, with the Copyright Office basically ignoring them, this can only get worse.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Starke (profile), 19 Jul 2014 @ 11:01am

        Re: Re: Things will get worse.

        Sorry, that should be: "...chose to ignore the court's ruling..."

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        nasch (profile), 21 Jul 2014 @ 10:06am

        Re: Re: Things will get worse.

        Walking out on Congress is a horrible idea because if they piss them off enough, Congress can just start defunding them.

        It would take a lot more than that for Congress to try to defund the FBI.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Anonymous Coward, 18 Jul 2014 @ 7:33pm

    Actual Thoughts

    While shit happens and you get bad or corrupt lab techs, there should be controls and audits that make that possibility remote, yet shit happens. The science for this is there, they do need to practice it, and show the work.

    The laggardly response to correcting wrongs made by those techs is utterly disgusting.

    I wonder if meeting with those fine organizations would have the intended effect? If it turns into, "OK, here is what you feebs do that give us grounds for acquittals or appeals, don't do those things,", and they actually listen, well good. Why can't they figure this out for themselves? I mean, they do have a bunch of lawyers there, and they report to another bunch of lawyers.

    It is more likely to become some sort of negotiation of some document or other that will take a great deal of time and many meetings, and will then get filed, maybe even with pomp and circumstance, but it will get filed...and never spoken of again.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 19 Jul 2014 @ 1:48am

      Re: Actual Thoughts

      The science for this is there, they do need to practice it, and show the work.
      They followed proper methodology down to the letter. Unfortunately, they were using Laboratory Procedure Manuals remaindered from a CDC print run.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 19 Jul 2014 @ 4:20am

        Re: Re: Actual Thoughts

        More like CEDA from the Left4Dead games - utterly incompetent at their jobs, then they blame everyone else.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 18 Jul 2014 @ 8:32pm

    This has been a partial interest for some 40+ years when I first read a paper on the analysis of blind specimens by forensic labs -- the error rate was over 50%.

    More recently the FBI was forced to retract a bullet trace metal analysis test. Any one who has had high school algebra should have seen the terrible logical error that the method was based on. I have no doubt that the paper's referees did. But were most likely too afraid or pressured by the FBI to reject the paper.

    So many of these cases exist, that it is no reasonable way to attempt to even attempt to address them all. Just the ones in that are public knowledge are enough to make one sick if an individual knows about them.

    In the end someone was brave enough to challenge the method, and hundreds of cases relying on FBI testimony had to be reexamine.

    It is not so much the bad tech, though they are more than enough of a problem, but police and administrative pressure that is by far the greater cause of these issues.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 19 Jul 2014 @ 12:48am

    Minimum wage $7.25, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year for 21 years comes to just over 1.3 million dollars.

    Lives destroyed, youths stolen, personalities permanently altered. Anyone wanna take bets on whether they will receive even minimum wage as compensation for this catastrophic fuck up?

    God bless 'Merca.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Starke (profile), 19 Jul 2014 @ 11:04am


      Of course not, because we're talking about public employees, they'll hide behind sovereign immunity, or whatever, and get the cases tossed, because it was "honest mistakes."

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 19 Jul 2014 @ 6:21am

    Well you have to understand - there is a lot of pressure from the private prison industry, they have a bottom line to worry about and do not give a shit about anything else.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 19 Jul 2014 @ 7:30am

    Northern VA example

    Another example:

    Families still want answers in deaths

    Families considering options to get serial killer check in unsolved slayings

    Date published: 12/23/2007


    In August 2002, the local, state and federal law enforcement task force that had been hunting for years for the killer of three Spotsylvania County girls announced
    Evonitz as their killer based primarily on forensic evidence examined by the FBI Laboratory...

    FBI Richmond Division chief Thompson retired in July 2006 believing the forensic checks had been done. When he learned they had not, he told The Free Lance-Star he
    continued to believe forensic comparisons should be conducted between evidence from Evonitz and the unsolved slayings...

    As a result, hairs and fibers evidence from Reynolds' slaying was brought to the FBI Lab in May 2004, but it was never examined and not compared to samples from Evonitz.

    In fact, the Reynolds evidence was delivered to the FBI Lab twice without getting examined.

    The lab suggested it was the fault of FBI Agent Jane Collins who failed to bring samples from Evonitz to make the comparison. Collins testified in court that the lab denied the request.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    orbitalinsertion (profile), 19 Jul 2014 @ 11:37am

    Ha! They think they are Texas.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 19 Jul 2014 @ 1:14pm

    FBI partnering with the defense to overturn convictions? Yeah right! American justice isn't about right or wrong. It's about handing out as many convictions as possible.

    Nothing will change. If anything, the FBI and DOJ will double down on covering up evidence of misconduct and faulty lab analysis, by saying their lab server "crashed" or "water damage" occurred. Or simply keep fabricating evidence like they've been doing.

    You can bet your life on that.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Ninja (profile), 21 Jul 2014 @ 5:42am

    When you have law enforcement act as if they are the absolute power and simply ignoring due process, the law and the very Constitution this is bound to happen. This is yet another argument against those that think law enforcement shouldn't be restrained by warrants and due process.

    When such thing start costing lives both literally and in the form of decades rotting in prison then things have already gone too far. Exceptions can happen, humans are fallible but what we are seeing are NOT exceptions unfortunately.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Groaker (profile), 21 Jul 2014 @ 1:04pm

    And just how much dirt does the FBT and its related agencies have on said Congress persons? How much political and legal pressure as well as blackmail and extortion and can be used to control Congress? This is why these agencies can do as they please.

    The suppressed DUIs, drug use, statutory and forceful rapes, bribes and other crimes have a price to pay when they don't get too hot to handle outside the media -- the Congress person goes on a leash.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

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