Los Angeles Times: FBI Abandons Controversial Bullet-Matching Technique
FBI Abandons Controversial Bullet-Matching Technique
By Charles Piller
Times Staff Writer
September 2, 2005
The FBI said Thursday that it had discontinued the use of bullet-lead matching,
a forensic technique used for at least 25 years that had been heavily criticized
as inaccurate and misleading.
The bureau suspended its use in 2004 after a report by the National Research
Council found the technique could be "seriously misleading" and "objectionable."
The council's finding called into question FBI testimony in hundreds of cases
involving murder and other serious crimes.
"It's a victory for good sense and good science over the kind of nonsense the
FBI was representing in court," said William C. Thompson, a professor of law and
criminology at UC Irvine.
The FBI said it would alert about 300 courts and prosecutors that since 1996 had
received bullet-lead laboratory reports indicating positive results.
"These agencies may take whatever steps they deem appropriate, if any, given the
facts of their particular case," said an FBI statement released Thursday.
Overall, the bureau estimated it had conducted 2,500 bullet-lead examinations
for federal, state, local and foreign cases since the early 1980s.
In bullet-lead analysis, crime-scene bullets are tested for trace elements, such
as antimony, silver and tin. Examiners then compared those elements to levels
found in bullets in a suspect's possession.
FBI examiners had testified that crime-scene bullets could be linked to bullets
found in a box owned by a suspect. The method was often used when no gun was
found, making it impossible to identify a bullet by matching rifling marks left
by a gun's barrel.
FBI Laboratory Director Dwight E. Adams said the agency, after conducting its
own evaluation over the last 14 months, concluded that the manufacturing and
distribution of bullets was too variable to make the matching reliable.
"It wasn't possible to obtain accurate, easily understandable probability
estimates like it is with other methods, such as DNA," Adams said.
Nonetheless, he said, "we stand by the results of the reports we have already
FBI testimony had sometimes gone beyond the lab reports, and juries had often
accepted such testimony as important in criminal cases.
A Times investigation published in 2003 suggested the FBI might have exaggerated
the scientific validity of bullet-lead matching.
In one case, that of Michael Behn, a New Jersey man convicted of murder in 1997,
an FBI examiner testified that bullets collected from the victim's body matched
those in Behn's home. In Behn's case, Adams blamed the prosecutor, who
"overstated the evidence," he said.
Behn challenged the bullet-lead evidence on appeal. His conviction was
overturned in March, and he was granted a new trial. His case is pending.
Thompson said the FBI should be more aggressive in making sure wrongful
convictions due to faulty bullet-lead evidence were overturned.
"If the FBI is serious about correcting the problems, they should make the list
of cases known to organizations such as the National Assn. of Criminal Defense
Lawyers that might be able to provide assistance to incarcerated individuals,"
Copyright 2005 Los Angeles Times