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Posted at 9:00 AM ET, 03/25/2010

Whitehurst’s legacy still haunts the FBI lab

By Jeff Stein

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.”

By Jeff Stein  | 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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Injustice, that's where the money is. I kind of believed it was in justice. I guess you have your space and I have mine. They wonder why there are problems when they are the problem. At times bankruptcy is the solution. When you are in the hole, stay there and we'll fill in the blanks.

Posted by: tossnokia | March 25, 2010 6:39 PM | Report abuse

As far as I'm concerned the guy did everyone else one heck of a public service. He raised a bar that needed raising because it tends to drift without that. Forensics isn't easy stuff at all, and the people doing the work in the field want to do the best job they can.

Posted by: Nymous | March 26, 2010 2:31 AM | Report abuse

Raising the bar is easy. Breaking barriers is hard. It's getting easier to build cases and manufacture evidence. It's getting harder to manufacture cars at a profit. Nobody seems interested in fraud investigations at GM and if they use Enron accounting they can keep a three ring circus going with one ring operating. Family business implies family continuity and this monkey business supplies bananas for a banana republic. We can destroy the family to supply the fraud with more fuel and haunt ourselves. We'll have the right to keep car salesmen in cheap suits and Gucci loafers. Dealers of death are busy and well well funded. Investigate that.

Posted by: tossnokia | March 26, 2010 3:00 AM | Report abuse

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