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Tuesday, January 17, 2017

The FBI Crime Laboratory: The Dark Years

     Until the mid-1990s, all of the forensic scientists working in the FBI Crime Lab had at least three years experience in the field as ordinary special agents. Staffing the lab with former criminal investigators (J. Edgar Hoover's idea) was supposed to make them better forensic practitioners. Critics of this policy believed it made them part of a law enforcement team instead of independent forensic scientists. Moreover, by basing the hiring criteria on specal agent qualifications, the FBI Lab was not attracting or being staffed by first-rate scientists.

Agent Versus Agent

     Special Agent Michael P. Malone had earned his bachelor's and master's degrees in biology, and taught high school science for two years before he joined the FBI in 1970. After working four years in the field as a criminal investigator, Malone was assigned to the FBI Crime Lab. During his 25 years as a hair and fiber analyst, Malone testified in hundreds of criminal trials. He became popular as a prosecution expert, testifying in dozens of high profile cases where the fate of the defendant depended upon his identification of a crime scene hair or fiber. As an expert witness he was confident and hard to rattle, and he knew how to impress a jury.

     In the early 1990s, Frederic Whitehurst, an FBI Lab bomb residue analyst who identified chemical components of explosive substances, alerted lab supervisors to problems in the trace evidence section of the facility. Whitehurst complained that the laboratory was so dirty physical evidence was always in danger of being contaminated. Whitehurst was especially critical of hair and fiber analyst Michael Malone whom he accused of allowing his loyalty to police and prosecutors to attenuate his independence and objectivity as a forensic scientist. In memos to the director of the lab, Whitehurst pointed out that hair and fiber identification was an inexact and subjective process, making this form of crime scene identification highly unreliable. The whistleblower noted that Malone's testimony had sent many defendants to prison, some of whom might have been innocent.

     When Whitehurst's internal complaints fell on deaf ears, he began writing long, detailed letters to Michael Bromwich, the U. S. Department of Justice inspector general. Between 1991 and 1994, Whitehurst wrote Bromwich 237 letters. In September 1995, the inspector general launched an investigation after ABC's "Prime Time Live," having gotten hold of some of these letters, aired a story about Whitehurst's campaign to improve the FBI Lab. In April 1997, almost six years after Whitehurst began documenting problems in the nation's largest crime lab, Bromwich issued a 517-page report critical of the laboratory. Bromwich singled out seven lab employees, including Michael Malone, whom he described as having provided "false testimony." The inspector general recommended Malone for disciplinary action.

     Two years later, a second Department of Justice investigation revealed that Agent Malone had made hair and fiber identification errors in four homicide cases in the Tampa Bay area. In the same report detailing these findings, Department of Justice investigators also criticized Whitehurst for overstating the forensic implications of his scientific analysis in some of his own cases. Whitehurst, who had been transferred to the paint identification unit of the lab, was suspended. After the bureau denied his petition for reinstatement, Whitehurst retired and entered private practice. To some, Whitehurst was a hero. To the FBI however, he was a traitor. He was a whistleblower, the lowest form of bureaucratic life.

     Michael Malone denied lying under oath or playing fast and loose with hair and fiber evidence. He blamed the FBI Lab scandal on jealous colleagues whom he described as incompetent. Regarding those cases in which DNA analysis had exonerated defendants whose hair he had identified as being at crime scenes, Malone blamed overzealous prosecutors who overstated the implications of his findings. Following the inspector general's investigations and recommendations, Malone was reassigned back to the field. He retired in December 1999. To the FBI, Special Agent Malone was the hero.

     Today, the head of the FBI Crime Lab hires employees on the basis of their backgrounds in science. Even for crime lab civilians, maintaining scientific objectivity is not easy. But there is no question that the lab is far superior now than it was during those dark years. And as is often the case in governmental scandals that result in improved conditions, it was a courageous whistleblower that made it all possible.    

1 comment:

  1. I have great respect for Mr. Whitehurst. He is a courageous man who risked career advancement to do the right thing. Malone's actions were criminal. His practices prevented many defendants from seeing justice in their cases.

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