Two candidates on SBI lab short list

One figured in Okla. bombing

Staff WritersJune 10, 2011 

  • The testimony of FBI chemist Steven Burmeister, a finalist to be director of the SBI lab, was called into question in the Oklahoma City bombing case:

    April 19, 1995: Bombing at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing 168.

    1995: FBI chief explosives chemist Fred Whitehurst files multiple reports to the FBI's Office of the Inspector General, blowing the whistle on shoddy work at the lab.

    January 1996: Whitehurst complained to the inspector general about problems with the analysis of the Oklahoma City bombing. Steven Burmeister, Whitehurst's understudy, also reported problems about this case to the inspector general. Burmeister called one of the analysts in the bombing investigation and his techniques "unqualified."

    January 1997: Several analysts who handled the Oklahoma City investigation are removed from the lab after a damning report from the inspector general. Burmeister is the only witness from the FBI lab remaining who worked on the investigation.

    March 1997: Burmeister, in preparation to testify for the prosecution at the trial of accused Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, retracts his previous criticisms of the analysis done in the case.

    Spring 1997: Burmeister testifies in the McVeigh trial that he found ammonium nitrate embedded in a piece of debris that police linked to McVeigh's truck. It is the only physical evidence connecting explosives to McVeigh, who was convicted and sentenced to death.

    January 1998: McVeigh's co-conspirator, Terry Nichols, is convicted in federal court and sentenced to life without parole.

    2001: Ten days before McVeigh is executed, Whitehurst and lawyers for other whistleblowers alert the attorney general that Burmeister may have given false testimony about the explosives during McVeigh's trial. McVeigh's lawyers are never alerted; McVeigh is executed.

    Spring 2004: State prosecutors in Oklahoma try Nichols for murder. Whitehurst testifies that Burmeister lied. Whitehurst testified that that rain and water from firehouses may have contaminated the sample. At most, Whitehurst said that the crystals looked like they may be sprinkled on the debris, not embedded by the force of an explosion. Nichols is convicted and sentenced to 161 consecutive life sentences.

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."

joseph.neff@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4516

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