Attorney General Roy Cooper has narrowed his search for a new director of the SBI crime lab to two candidates, including a retired FBI scientist accused by his mentor of changing scientific conclusions under pressure from prosecutors and colleagues in the Oklahoma City bombing case.
The finalists for the State Bureau of Investigation job are Jana Champion, the director of one of three state crime labs in Wisconsin; and Steven G. Burmeister, now an assistant deputy director under the Director of National Intelligence.
Burmeister recently retired from the FBI where he was section chief for Scientific Analysis at the agency's lab.
In 1995, Burmeister, a chemist and explosives expert, told internal investigators about shoddy work by colleagues in the Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168. Eighteen months later, Burmeister returned to the FBI's inspector general and retractedmany of his complaints.
He went on to testify in the three resulting trials of Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols without disclosing his previous concerns about the lab work.
Burmeister's mentor, Fred Whitehurst, testified at Nichols' 2004 trial that his former student gave testimony unsubstantiated by the science.
"He is my student. And I trust him like a brother," White hurst testified. "But he lied under oath. He lied."
Whitehurst, the FBI's lead explosives expert for years, was a whistle-blower whose complaints in the 1990s exposed slipshod work in the FBI crime lab and led to wide-ranging reforms. He now practices law in Pitt County.
In September, Cooper, who oversees the SBI, announced a national search for a director of the crime lab. He and SBI Director Greg McLeod promised to find the best available forensic scientist to run the lab.
The SBI lab has been under fire since February 2010, when Greg Taylor, an innocent man, was freed after judges learned thatan SBI serologist had withheld crucial evidence that proved a stain on Taylor's SUV wasn't blood. A News & Observer series in August revealed that analysts pushed past accepted bounds of science and allied themselves with the prosecution. Cooper removed the SBI director and lab director.
Weeks later, an independent audit initiated by Cooper found that lab analysts did not report test results helpful to defendants in more than 200 cases.
The General Assembly passed a series of laws to reform the lab and ensure that it works for the entire criminal justice system, not just prosecutors.
Cooper and McLeod did not respond to requests for an interview about the search for a lab director. Burmeister and Champion did not return phone calls for comment.
A change of mind
Initially, Burmeister joined Whitehurst as a whistle-blower.
Whitehurst said Burmeister told him that, in the months before he changed his mind about the lab work in the Oklahoma City case, lab employees and prosecutors were pressuring him to change his testimony and scientific conclusions.
At first Burmeister criticized a colleague's decision to vacuum clothing suspected of having explosives evidence. Burmeister called it an "unqualified technique," but 18 months later he changed his mind and called it a qualified technique.
Burmeister also initially criticized how the colleague tried to remove potential explosive evidence from a knife, saying he should have rinsed the knife rather than use a swab to collect the evidence. Again, Burmeister dropped his complaint, saying both swabbing and rinsing were acceptable techniques.
Burmeister also retracted his initial complaint that the colleague was not qualified to run some of the tests on the Oklahoma evidence. Again, 18 months later Burmeister said his colleague was "fully qualified."
Evidence of crystals
Burmeister had made a key discovery of ammonium nitrate crystals embedded in a single piece of the Ryder rental truck in which McVeigh planted a bomb that exploded in front of federal building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995.
According to news reports of the 2004 trial, Whitehurst testified that he saw the crystals through a microscope but that it was impossible to say if the crystals were embedded or sprinkled on the debris as a result of contamination. Being embedded indicated that they were bomb materials that were lodged in the truck by the explosion.
"I saw a lot of these little crystals on the surface," Whitehurst said. "They were simply adhering to the surface."
Whitehurst said he was apprehensive that the crystals on the evidence were the result of contamination after the evidence was collected by law enforcement. He worried about that because ammonium nitrate dissolves in water, and the crystals had somehow withstood a rainstorm and water from firefighters.
"It just leaves me as a scientist, knowing how these crystals act, leaves me uneasy," he said.
Whitehurst testified that Burmeister began referring to the crystals as embedded after meeting with federal prosecutors in McVeigh's trial.
In an interview this week, Whitehurst said Burmeister stopped pointing out problems at the lab to protect his chances of advancing at the FBI.
He said Burmeister is an extremely competent scientist: "He'll know what's wrong at the [SBI] lab, but he will know it's not good for him to point them out."
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