|Active||November 24, 1932 – present|
|Agency||Federal Bureau of Investigation|
|Part of||Science and Technology Branch|
|Location||Marine Corps Base Quantico, Quantico, Virginia|
|Employees||Approx. 500 (2007)|
The FBI Laboratory (also called the Laboratory Division) is a division within the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation that provides forensic analysis support services to the FBI, as well as to state and local law enforcement agencies free of charge. The lab is located at Marine Corps Base Quantico in Quantico, Virginia. Opened November 24, 1932, the lab was first known as the Technical Laboratory. It became a separate division when the original Bureau of Investigation (BOI) was renamed the FBI.
The Lab staffs approximately 500 scientific experts and special agents. The lab generally enjoys the reputation as the premier crime lab in the United States. However, during the 1990s, its reputation and integrity came under withering criticism, primarily due to the revelations of Special Agent Dr. Frederic Whitehurst, the most prominent whistleblower in the history of the Bureau. Whitehurst was a harsh critic of conduct at the Lab. He believed that a lack of funding had affected operations and that Lab technicians had a pro-prosecution bias. He suggested they were FBI agents first and forensic scientists second, due to the institutional culture of the Bureau, which resulted in the tainting of evidence.
|Presentation by John F. Kelly on Tainting Evidence: Inside the Scandals at the FBI Crime Lab, July 10, 1998, C-SPAN|
From September 1934 to September 1975, the Lab was located on the 6th floor and the attic of the Justice Department Building in Washington, D.C. Public tours of the lab work area were available until the FBI moved across the street to the newly constructed J. Edgar Hoover Building in 1974. Tours of the J. Edgar Hoover Building were available, but the tour route shifted away from the lab work space, thus sealing the lab from public view. The Lab expanded to such an extent that the Forensic Science Research and Training Center (FSRTC) was established at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia. Methods at the FSRTC have helped establish standardized forensic practices for law enforcement agencies. The FBI Lab has been in Quantico since the relocation from Washington since April 2003.
Dr. Frederic Whitehurst, who joined the FBI in 1982 and served as a Supervisory Special Agent at the Lab from 1986 to 1998, blew the whistle on scientific misconduct at the Lab. As a result of Whitehurst's whistleblowing, the FBI Lab implemented forty major reforms, including undergoing an accreditation process. Reforms took place under FBI chief Louis Freeh, who served from 1993 to 2001.
Whitehurst's whistleblowing in the 1990s and the adverse publicity trials, in which FBI Lab employees were revealed as incompetent or disingenuous, led to major changes. According to John F. Kelly & Phillip K. Wearne's book Tainting Evidence: Inside the Scandals at the FBI Crime Lab (1998), the FBI Crime Lab had been hurt by a lack of funding and an institutional entropy rooted in Lab employees' belief that they were the best forensic experts in the country, if not the world. Some Lab employees failed to keep abreast of developments in forensic science.
The two authors concluded that the worst problem was that the Lab employees were FBI agents rather than pure forensic scientists. The investigative paradigm of the detective was antithetical to the investigative paradigm of the scientist. Lab employees began to work backwards, from a conclusion preordained by the prosecutors they served, and sought to justify that conclusion rather than using more scientific research paradigms.
21st century controversies
The more widespread use of DNA testing in the late 20th century brought renewed scrutiny to the scientific reliability of many of the FBI Laboratory's forensic analyses. "Scientific experts consider DNA—which first became widely used in courts in the 1990s—to be the only near-certain indicator of a forensic match."
The scientific reliability of FBI hair analysis has been questioned as DNA testing has exonerated persons convicted where the only physical evidence was hair analysis. In addition, in a high percentage of cases, the FBI has learned that its expert witnesses overstated the reliability of hair analysis in testimony in court cases. In 2013 the Department of Justice began a review of thousands of cases from 1982 through 1999 referred to the FBI for hair analysis. By 2015 it found that these included 32 death penalty convictions, of which 14 people had died in prison or been executed, and narrowed its review to cases that went to court. It has focused on cases in which hair analysis played a part in convictions, in order to follow up with defendants.
In a subsequent investigation in 2012, the DOJ found that evidence related to hair analysis had been falsified, altered, or suppressed, or that FBI agents had overstated the scientific basis of their testimony, to the detriment of defendants. In 2013, the Department of Justice began a review of cases referred to them for hair analysis from 1982 through 1999, as many as 10,000 cases, to determine whether their agents' testimony resulted in wrongful convictions. DNA testing has revealed some convicted inmates to be innocent of violent crime charges against them. In 2015 the FBI reported that their expert witnesses overstated the reliability of hair analysis in matching suspects 96 percent of the time, likely influencing conviction of some defendants.
Cases are still being overturned as a result of incorrect hair analysis testimony. In 2012, DNA testing revealed the innocence of three inmates from the District of Columbia who had been convicted to life and served years in prison based on hair analysis evidence and testimony by FBI experts. They have received large settlements from the city because of wrongful convictions and damages of the lost years.
Bullet and gun analysis
Bullet and gun analysis is another forensic discipline that has been identified in recent studies as being less scientifically reliable than thought. The Bureau established an interdisciplinary commission in 2013 to establish the highest scientific standards in forensic testing and to understand the limits of these tests, and how they may be properly used in court.
With a heightened attention to scientific rigor in its forensic testing, the FBI lab in 2005 abandoned its four-decade-long practice of tracing bullets to a specific manufacturer's batch through chemical analysis, after its methods were scientifically debunked. A blue-ribbon panel of the National Academy of Sciences raised concerns about the FBI's reliance on forensic testing in a 2009 report that "found nearly every familiar staple of forensic science to be scientifically unsound" and highly subjective.
In 2016 a man was exonerated and freed in Virginia, based on DNA evidence, after serving 33 years in prison. He had been convicted of rape and murder and sentenced to life in part based on several FBI experts testifying to identification of him by bite-mark patterns, to a "medical certainty". Scientists say that such certainty is impossible to gain by this test. The DNA testing showed that he was not the perpetrator of the crime. As the Washington Post reported, "No court in the United States has barred bite-mark evidence, despite 21 known wrongful convictions, a proposed moratorium in Texas and research showing that experts cannot consistently agree even on whether injuries are caused by human teeth." This forensic test has been highly suspect for some years, but prosecutors and police continue to rely on it, and FBI agents make claims about it.
- "The FBI Laboratory: 75 Years of Forensic Science Service". Federal Bureau of Investigation. October 2007. Retrieved August 8, 2020.
- "Science and Technology Branch". Federal Bureau of Investigation. Retrieved August 16, 2022.
- "FBI Laboratory History". Federal Bureau of Investigation. Archived from the original on January 3, 2015.
- "Major FBI Laboratory Milestones".
- ERIC LICHTBLAU, "Justice Dept. to Tighten Rules on Testimony by Scientists", New York Times, 03 June 2016; accessed 12 June 2017
- Hsu, Spencer (April 16, 2012). "Convicted defendants left uninformed of forensic flaws found by Justice Dept". The Washington Post. Retrieved August 31, 2014.
- Hsu, Spencer (April 18, 2015). "FBI admits flaws in hair analysis over decades". The Washington Post. Retrieved April 22, 2015.
- Hsu, Spencer (July 17, 2013). "U.S. reviewing 27 death penalty convictions for FBI forensic testimony errors". The Washington Post. Retrieved August 31, 2014.
- "Washington Post Calls for Full Review of FBI Crime Lab" Archived 2013-05-22 at the Wayback Machine
- Spencer S. Hsu, "Sessions orders Justice Dept. to end forensic science commission, suspend review policy", Washington Post, 10 April 2017; 12 June 2017