Ruling in FBI Lab Report Case Is Victory for Due Process
Washington, DC (March 17, 1997) -- Persons unlawfully convicted in cases involving mishandled evidence from the FBI forensic science labs will have a full year from the release of the Justice Department's report on lab deficiencies and foul-ups to challenge their convictions, the government conceded in federal court today. That assurance from Justice Department lawyers, first confided to the court late-Friday evening, figured prominently in today's decision hold off on any emergency injunctive relief to the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, the lead plaintiff, in its Freedom of Information Act suit to force immediate public release of the Inspector General's critical draft report. Parts of that preliminary report already have made their way to Capitol Hill and to counsel in a few individual cases.
Justice Department lawyer Jessica A. Lerner assured U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler that "it is the official position of the Department of Justice that . . . any prisoners who potentially have habeas claims based on the contents of the final report of the Office of Inspector General ("OIG") concerning allegations of impropriety involving the FBI laboratory will have diligently discovered facts supporting their claim as of the date of public disclosure of the report." The letter also states the Inspector General Michael Bromwich will transmit the report to Attorney General Janet Reno "no later than April 15." Earlier in the case, government lawyers could not state whether the report would ever be released to the public. Pressured by the suit, they have now assured the court that the Attorney General could release an edited version of final report in as little as 24 hours after her office receives it.
"The Court is satisfied with DOJ's written commitment," Judge Kessler said in today's preliminary ruling. "Defendants filing petitions [of habeas corpus] will not be prejudiced. That is a statement which can be used in any court."
"It's absolutely critical for them to have put that commitment in writing," NACDL President Judy Clarke said upon learning of the development. "This could help many wrongfully-convicted prisoners get their claims into court under the newly-discovered evidence exception to last year's ill-conceived habeas corpus reform." Clarke is executive director of Federal Defenders of Eastern Washington and Idaho.
The Justice Department had sought to dismiss the case. Instead, because of its importance, Judge Kessler scheduled a status hearing April 16, two days after the Inspector General says he will turn the final report over to Attorney General Janet Reno. She declined to order the Department to release the draft report at this time, however, noting the "political climate" in which the FBI has come under fire from the press and Congress.
"This is no small victory for justice in America," Clarke said. "If our suit has encouraged the Department to commit to releasing the FBI lab report in a timely manner, then I see it as a major victory for due process of law. The obvious question now is, will they try to cover up or cover over the most damning portions of the draft report when they release the final version. We have every confidence that Judge Kessler would not tolerate that, since the rights of individual defendants in criminal cases -- convicted persons who may actually be innocent -- could be directly affected."
NACDL lawyers are studying today's ruling and awaiting release of the final version of the report, said Public Affairs Director Jack King, who filed the Freedom of Information Act request last month. King said that "if the final report is a whitewash" of FBI Lab misconduct, NACDL will pursue release of the draft report.
NACDL is the preeminent organization in the United States advancing the mission of the nation's criminal defense lawyers to ensure justice and due process for persons accused of crime. A professional bar association formed in 1958, NACDL's 9,000 direct members -- and 78 state and local affiliates with another 25,000 members -- include private criminal defense lawyers, public defenders, judges and law professors committed to preserving fairness within America's criminal justice system.