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D.C. judge asked to widen investigation into FBI agents' lab work

The D.C. Public Defender Service asked a judge Wednesday to order a broader, more transparent investigation into past convictions involving lab work by FBI agents whose performance or integrity later came into question.

The U.S. attorney's office completed a partial review of the cases in March, following the exoneration of Donald Eugene Gates after 28 years behind bars.

Gates' rape and murder conviction rested on testimony from FBI hair examiner Michael Malone, one of 13 FBI examiners criticized in a 1997 report by the Justice Department inspector general. The inspector general found that Malone had given false testimony in proceedings that led to the impeachment and ouster of U.S. District Judge Alcee Hastings in 1989.

Gates' exoneration in December -- a result of recent DNA testing -- prompted D.C. Superior Court Senior Judge Fred B. Ugast to ask prosecutors for a report on all convictions in the District of Columbia that involved any of the 13 FBI agents.

Last month, prosecutors said they needed more time to review the cases, which they said numbered more than 100. They submitted information on 20 cases, most of which they said either did not go to trial or didn't rely on lab evidence. In three cases in which the evidence was used, they said they did not believe the criticism of the FBI examiners would have affected the outcome.

In a letter Wednesday to D.C. Superior Court Chief Judge Lee F. Satterfield, the Public Defender Service complained that the review lacked transparency. Sandra K. Levick, the service's chief of special litigation, said the review by the U.S. attorney's office had the same problems as a Justice Department task force that reviewed cases nationwide following the inspector general's report in a process Levick called “secret and one-sided.”

In Gates' case, prosecutors took years to review Malone's work and never even informed Gates that the case against him was potentially tainted. After they finally submitted it for a scientific review, which uncovered flaws, they failed to forward the results to Gates or his attorneys.

Levick asked Satterfield to appoint the Public Defender Service to serve as defense counsel to the investigation and to give it access to all the records of the cases prosecutors are reviewing.

She also asked him to widen the investigation to include convictions involving any hair and fiber analysis by the FBI. Microscopic hair analysis is today widely considered unreliable for identification purposes.

Levick urged Satterfield to establish an “innocence commission” that would bring together law enforcement officials, defense attorneys and others to examine each wrongful conviction and recommend changes to prevent future mistakes.

-- Associated Press

By Washington Post Editors  |  April 14, 2010; 5:07 PM ET
Categories:  From the Courthouse , The District  
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