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September 27, 1998, Sunday, Late Edition - Final

SECTION: Section 7; Page 25; Column 2; Book Review Desk 

LENGTH: 678 words

HEADLINE: Dismal Science

BYLINE:  By David Johnston;  David Johnston is a Washington correspondent for The Times.


Inside the Scandals
at the FBI Crime Lab.
By John F. Kelly
and Phillip K. Wearne.
355 pp. New York:
The Free Press. $25.

Like a lot of myths about the F.B.I., the image of its criminal laboratory as a cutting-edge forensic unit has frayed rather badly in recent years, as internal Justice Department investigations disclosed problems ranging from sloppy evidence handling to doctored reports. In "Tainting Evidence," John F. Kelly and Phillip K. Wearne continue the assault, showing how the lab's ineptitude played out in a series of high-profile cases like the bombings at the World Trade Center and the Oklahoma City Federal Building and the mail Bomb assassination of Robert Vance, a Federal appeals court judge.

Kelly, who was the principal investigator for "The Bureau," a 1995 PBS television series, and Wearne, a freelance journalist based in London and Brussels, make Frederic Whitehurst, a chemist at the F.B.I. lab, their protagonist. They portray top Federal Bureau of Investigation managers as creaky bureaucrats who turned on Whitehurst. He had been showering them for years with memos complaining about the lab and examiners who worked there. His superiors greeted his criticisms with shrugs of complacency -- and then a demotion in the form of a transfer. In the end, Whitehurst's whistle-blowing worked: it was largely responsible for forcing the Justice Department to investigate the lab. After an 18-month inquiry, however, in April 1997 the department's inspector general issued a 517-page report dismissing Whitehurst's charges that lab examiners fabricated testimony, but confirming important allegations of testimonial errors, substandard analytical work and poor practices at the lab's chemistry-toxicology, explosives and material analysis units.

Kelly and Wearne revisit many of Whitehurst's complaints, asserting that the inspector general's report was too narrow -- though in more than one instance, incidents the inspector general cited and the book relates make the lab sleuths seem better fodder for a sitcom than a detective story. Take the time the principal examiner of the explosion at the Oklahoma Federal Building turned forensic science on its head, determining the weight of the Bomb to be 4,000 pounds not by scientific analysis but by working backward, calculating its weight by the receipts for fertilizer found on the property of one of the suspects. Nevertheless, "Tainting Evidence" sounds one-sided, a problem exacerbated by the F.B.I.'s unwillingness to respond to the authors' inquiries and requests for information, on grounds that are not clear from the book, although it seems apparent that F.B.I. officials may have doubted their objectivity.

The inspector general's inquiry caused an upheaval at the lab. It forced law enforcement officials to overhaul procedures, hire a director with a science background and seek professional accreditation of the lab for the first time. The F.B.I., adept at handling Congress, turned its embarrassment into a budget increase, wresting money from lawmakers to construct a new lab at its training base in Quantico, Va. (The lab is currently located at headquarters in Washington.)

STILL, the authors overstate the lab's failures as a shocking breakdown of the criminal justice system. The inadequacies of the lab, while serious, have not produced the chaos predicted by defense lawyers. The disclosures about lab work, they said, would topple scores of criminal convictions, raise doubts about the truthfulness of forensic evidence in hundreds of other cases and turn dangerous felons loose on the streets.

As Oklahoma City shows, sloppy lab work does not necessarily mean that the F.B.I. and the Justice Department have thrown innocent people into prison. With cooperating witnesses testifying against them, Terry Nichols and Timothy McVeigh faced long odds against escaping conviction. And a year after the report, only a handful of defendants have sought to overturn their convictions; so far no guilty verdicts have been reversed.