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Bomb case against oregon lawyer dropped { May 25 2004 }

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May 25, 2004
Bomb Case Against Oregon Lawyer Is Rejected

SEATTLE, May 24 - A federal judge in Portland, Ore., on Monday threw out the case against an American lawyer jailed for two weeks as a material witness in the Madrid train bombing. The Federal Bureau of Investigation said it had mistakenly matched his fingerprints with prints on a plastic bag found near the scene of the attacks that killed 191 people last March.

F.B.I. officials said that the erroneous fingerprint evidence against the lawyer, Brandon Mayfield, 37, of Aloha, Ore., stemmed from the poor quality of a digital image of the print sent from Spain and that they were conducting a review into the use of such procedures. The officials said they were no longer investigating Mr. Mayfield, a Muslim convert who was released from a Portland jail last week.

Late in the day, F.B.I. officials in Washington issued a statement saying, "The F.B.I. apologizes to Mr. Mayfield and his family for the hardships that this matter has caused."

Mr. Mayfield shook as he spoke at his news conference earlier in the day, thanking his family and supporters. "This is a serious infringement on our civil liberties," Mr. Mayfield said.

He added, "In a climate of fear, this war on terrorism has gone to the extreme and innocent people are victims as a result."

At a news conference in Portland and in court documents, the F.B.I. explained how the fingerprint error had happened. But those explanations did little to dilute what was clearly an embarrassment for the government.

The Mayfield episode is likely to lead to calls for a broad examination of both the laboratory work by the F.B.I. and the increasingly aggressive the Justice Department's use of the federal material witness statute to detain people who it says may have information about a crime.

The Justice Department is known to have used the statute at least 50 times since the Sept. 11 attacks, and civil liberties advocates said Monday that the Mayfield case demonstrated the potential for abuse.

"This is indicative of how the Justice Department has overreached and cut constitutional corners since 9/11," said David Fidanque, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon. "The Justice Department is using the material witness statute in a way that it was never meant to be used, and this is just the most dramatic example of that trend."

Mr. Mayfield said that in the weeks before his arrest he had sensed that he was being watched and that things were not quite right in the house, in the Portland suburb of Aloha, where he lives with his wife, Mona, an Egyptian immigrant, and their three children. He said a bolt on the front door had been locked, when no one in the family used it. Blinds were raised higher than usual, and there was a large footprint in the living room carpet, much larger than the shoe sizes of any of the Mayfields, he said.

"I feel that I was being surveyed or watched," he said. "Any of us sitting in this room could be subject to it. They will fiddle around with your possessions; they may take things or bring them back. People should wake up, is what I'm saying. We need to start protecting our civil liberties. You can't trade your freedom for security, because if you do, you're going to lose both."

Mr. Mayfield, a former lieutenant in the Army who was raised in a small town in Kansas, converted to Islam in 1989. He had also represented Jeffrey Leon Battle, who had been convicted of conspiring to aid the Taliban and Al Qaeda, in a custody case. He said he believed he had been investigated and arrested because he was a Muslim and because of his representation of Mr. Battle. But Karin J. Immergut, the United States attorney in Portland, said at a news conference that the investigation of Mr. Mayfield had nothing to do with his religion.

Ms. Immergut said that "although it is regrettable that the new information" about the fingerprint "came to light just now, I can assure you that we moved immediately to remedy the situation."

But questions were raised Monday about whether the F.B.I. had listened to doubts the Spaniards raised early on about the fingerprint match.

Steven T. Wax, Mr. Mayfield's lawyer and a public defender in Oregon, said: "What we know is that very early in this investigation, after the F.B.I. received the prints, the F.B.I. examiners met with Spanish fingerprint examiners and we are advised that very early on, the F.B.I. was told, 'We do not agree with your analysis, and we don't see a connection.' "Mr. Mayfield declined to say whether he was considering taking legal action against the government.

The F.B.I. said that after the Madrid attacks, it had received digital images from Spanish officials showing partial latent fingerprints from plastic bags containing detonator caps. The Spaniards asked the F.B.I. to analyze the images, and they were run through a database comparing unknown prints to millions of known prints, the F.B.I. said. Mr. Mayfield's fingerprints were on file because of his Army service.

The agency said its in-house fingerprint examiners "determined that the latent fingerprint was of value for identification purposes.''

It added, "This print was subsequently linked to Brandon Mayfield."

The bureau said the results were independently analyzed and confirmed by an outside fingerprint expert.

A motion by the Justice Department on Monday seeking the dismissal of the proceedings against Mr. Mayfield revealed additional details about the investigation and how it collapsed.

Prosecutors said that before what was thought to be a fingerprint match, Mr. Mayfield "was not under investigation and federal law enforcement authorities had no reason to believe that Mayfield had any information about the Madrid bombings."

It was the fingerprint match alone that led the F.B.I. to Mr. Mayfield, prosecutors said.

Mr. Mayfield was released last week after officials in Spain matched the fingerprint found in the bag near the Madrid bombing site with those of an Algerian. After Mr. Mayfield's release, officials said, two F.B.I. examiners traveled to Madrid to investigate the prints.

After the agents returned , they concluded that the latent print originally linked to Mr. Mayfield was "of no value for identification purposes," and it withdrew its finding of a match.

Sarah Kershaw reported from Seattle for this article, and Eric Lichtblau from Washington.

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company

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