Whitehurst’s legacy still haunts the FBI lab
A dozen years ago he was the central figure in the exposure of fraud and incompetence in the FBI’s crime lab.
Now, with his original revelations reverberating far beyond Washington in state and local police departments, his name is rarely evoked.
Fred Whitehurst was the FBI agent with a chemistry PhD who blew the whistle on mishandled evidence and misleading testimony by fellow agents in the bureau’s once-vaunted crime lab. For this he earned the enmity of many colleagues who saw him as a rat, the loss of his job, and the praise of many others who called him a hero.
Not surprisingly, the three-tour Vietnam combat veteran with a handful of medals escaped Washington a decade ago for Bethel, North Carolina, where his ancestors first settled in 1760.
Gone, and seemingly forgotten, Whitehurst’s revelations still haunt the criminal justice system. In just the past week, crime lab problems were reported in North Carolina, Washington State and San Francisco.
In this city alone, as my colleague Keith Alexander recently wrote, “The U.S. attorney's office in the District has found more than 100 cases since the mid-1970s that need to be reviewed because of potentially falsified and inaccurate tests by FBI analysts.”
Whitehurst’s name went unmentioned by Alexander, because there was no direct link to the particular case he was focusing on. But for those of us who have tracked such cases for years – I first wrote about problems in the FBI crime lab in 1997 -- Whitehurst’s legacy was palpable.
Not that he was a saint. While the Justice Department Inspector General’s report backed up Whitehurst’s allegations of systematic problems in the crime lab, it also criticized him “for some of the same mistakes the chemist had laid at his colleagues' door: failing to document forensic tests, overstating allegations, using ‘hyperbole and incendiary language that blurred the distinction between facts and his own speculation,’” according to an in-depth 2001 profile in the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times.
Whitehurst, 62, says he doesn’t miss the spotlight.
“We need not be mentioned when our work product tells the whole story,” he told me in an e-mail.
But he’s staying busy, lecturing and working as a forensic consultant. And the FBI has made big strides in cleaning up its act, finally gaining the scientific accreditation Whitehurst advocated and building a new, $130 million crime lab in Quantico, Va.
“And I continue to look through hundreds of thousands of FBI documents from FOIA [Freedom of Information suits] to find the victim defendants of the FBI agents (including myself) who were named in the IG report,” he said.
“We have made the justice system question itself and that is what is important. Let the Post articles remain about injustice,” he said, “not about Frederic Whitehurst.”
| March 25, 2010; 9:00 AM ET
Tags: Bethel, DC police crime lab, Department of Justice, FBI lab, Frederic Whitehurst, IG, NC, inspector general
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