Don’t Kill the Messenger! © Donald Ray Soeken
Discovering Discovering “Perjury” Inside an FBI Crime Lab
He was an outstanding FBI agent; even his sharpest critics in the Bureau will readily admit that much.
During his first few years as a Special agent, Whitehurst nailed down one “Outstanding” performance review after another.
The Bureau acknowledged as much in 1986 . . . by detailing him to become one of its top technicians at the FBI Explosives Evidence Laboratory in Washington, D.C. With a chemistry Ph.D. from prestigious Duke University in his back pocket, Whitehurst was a logical choice to work in the high-tech crime lab. Meticulous and diligent, he was also a perfectionist who insisted that the rules of evidence-gathering and analysis should always be observed down to the last detail.
Soon after arriving on the scene in Washington, Whitehurst found himself assigned to a high-profile mentor, a veteran chemical analyst and evidence-gatherer. Whitehurst was eager to begin learning his craft as a chemist whose job was to sniff out often-microscopic traces of high-powered “accelerants” . . . including exotic plastic explosives and other explosive ordnance that was being used by some of the world’s most sophisticated and deadly terrorists.
At first, things seemed to go well. But as the months passed and Whitehurst spent long hours working beside his FBI mentor, he became increasingly disturbed by the things he was seeing. Amazed and alarmed, he noticed that his boss frequently failed to run required clean-up procedures in the lab . . . a major breach of protocol that could easily lead to “contamination” of evidence, if even minuscule quantities of explosive powders or liquids were left on assay tools or lab surfaces between laboratory shifts.
Never a shy violet, Whitehurst was quick to challenge his new boss’ failures at cleanup and maintenance. But his complaints fell on deaf ears, as his new boss impatiently waved him away and mocked his “perfectionist” insistence that they follow lab regulations carefully.
The cleanup failures were bad enough. But they seemed almost trivial, a few months later, when Whitehurst discovered that his boss was breaking another cardinal rule by “working backwards” from the criminal allegations against suspects to the evidence itself.
The “backwards” transgressions were a way of saving time and energy for the lab technicians . . . by having them look exclusively for any evidence that might successfully convict a suspect in the courtroom – while ignoring anything that might tend to exonerate the suspect.
“Working backwards” was a profound and dangerous violation of crime lab evidence-gathering standards . . . since it could easily lead to the most egregious betrayal of justice imaginable: the false conviction of a suspect, who might then wind up serving years in prison for a crime that he or she had never committed.
Horrified to discover that the FBI lab crew frequently used the “backwards” approach in order to lighten their workload, Whitehurst soon realized that the rule-breaking lab workers were also willing to “doctor” their results now and then, if it made life a little bit easier for the FBI agents and the DOJ prosecutors more likely to win an important crime conviction.
Once again, Fred Whitehurst felt disillusioned and betrayed. How could his beloved Federal Bureau of Investigation stoop to this kind of prosecutorial fraud? How could they knowingly provide tainted evidence that might convince judges and juries to destroy the lives of people who might be innocent?
“That was a very hard time for me,” Whitehurst recalls today. “No sooner did I arrive at the lab in Washington than I was assigned to someone who right away started teaching me the art of perjury.
“Well, I know I wasn’t going to be able to tolerate it, that’s all. I took a long hard look at what they were doing, and I just told myself: ‘I’m not going to stand for this. I’m not going to put up with it.’
“On more than one occasion, I’d stood up against war crimes while serving in combat in Vietnam. I’d been in situations where I refused to allow people to be tortured, refused to allow VC prisoners to be executed. And I felt the same way about the perjury that was taking place in the FBI lab. Somehow, I knew I would have to find a way to stop the fraud and enforce the rule of law at the FBI.