Wrongful Convictions Violate Citizens' Rights
Washington, DC (February 4, 1997) -- Frustrated over the U.S. Justice Department's refusal to make public its Inspector General's report outlining serious problems with and within the FBI laboratory -- problems which could affect hundreds of individual cases across the country -- the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) today filed a Freedom of Information Act request seeking its prompt release within 10 working days as required by law. -- Click Here for Letter --
"The Department of Justice's own Inspector General has apparently uncovered numerous instances in which scientific evidence has been mishandled or handled so casually as to cast doubt on the validity of test results," observed NACDL President Judy Clarke, a Federal Public Defender in Spokane, WA. "Many, many cases are made or broken on the basis of painstaking scientific analysis of the physical evidence. When the reliability of the nation's premier crime lab is called into question, a full public airing of the concerns is of utmost importance.
"No American citizen's life or liberty should be gambled on whether the test results in any particular case are a result of diligent testing or 'garbage in, garbage out.' The risk of a single wrongful conviction as a result of mishandled evidence is intolerable and antithetic to everything our democracy stands for," Clarke said.
The IG's investigation began in 1995 after a lab supervisor, FBI Special Agent Frederic Whitehurst, charged that physical evidence in the Oklahoma City bombing case had been mishandled at several stages of the investigation. Adding to the mystery surrounding the allegations, Agent Whitehurst was summarily relieved of his duties last week along with three other senior FBI employees.
"It makes you wonder what in the world is going on there," said Marvin Miller, Co-Chair of NACDL's Prosecutorial Misconduct Committee. "All the IG reports and internal memoranda need to be made publically available immediately to help determine whether individual cases have been compromised by this. DOJ's bald assertions in the press reports that no cases have been compromised by this displays amazing arrogance. If they have nothing to hide, then why are they hiding these reports? Why don't they simply release the reports and let the public decide for themselves, instead of being told what to think?"
Agent Whitehurst's allegations that evidence in the Oklahoma City case was mishandled has caused understandable concern among defense lawyers across the country. The FBI's lab also handles evidence in many state and local criminal cases where the required expertise is beyond the capabilities of local law enforcement.
"Lawyers across the nation defending the regular, run-of-the-mill case are now saying, 'If they're sloppy in a case in which every TV station and every newspaper in the world is watching, what are they doing in my case?'" said Drew Findling, a prominent Atlanta attorney who co-chairs NACDL's Forensic Evidence Committee. "To avoid nonfeasance, defense attorneys are going to have to stop assuming that lab tests were properly done, stop stipulating to them, and start challenging them en masse."
"On behalf of citizens across America, and the media who regularly report on criminal justice issues, we are seeking release of the report under the Freedom of Information Act. The integrity of the FBI crime lab, or perhaps lack thereof, has the potential for affecting any of us. It's a matter of utmost public importance," said NACDL Public Affairs Director Jack King, who filed the request on behalf of the Association. "Whether they like it or not, the Justice Department can't just sweep this report under the rug. The taxpayers who paid for it have a right to know what's in it. And if it takes a FOIA request to get it for them, then so be it."
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-- Click Here for Letter to DOJ from NACDL --
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