Critics Galvanized by Oregon Lawyer’s Case

Times Staff Writers

A federal judge’s decision to release Muslim lawyer Brandon Mayfield rallied critics of the Justice Department on Friday, who decried his jailing in Oregon on dubious fingerprint evidence as a new example of government disregard for civil liberties.

The decision by U.S. District Judge Robert Jones in Portland coincided with Spanish authorities’ determination that the print linked to the March 11 train bombings in Madrid belonged to an Algerian suspect.

Federal authorities still consider Mayfield, a former Army lieutenant, a “material witness,” according to a website administered by the judge overseeing the case.


The sudden turn in the case is “a huge embarrassment” for federal investigators, said Michael Greenberger, a former senior Justice Department official who heads the University of Maryland’s Center for Health and Homeland Security. He and other critics contend the government’s approach to the case was legally flawed.

The developments also widened a rift between the FBI and Spanish authorities over the strength of fingerprint evidence that purportedly linked Mayfield to the train bombings that killed 191 people.

Questions about the case linger, compounded by Jones’ decision to continue a gag order that prevents lawyers and Mayfield from talking publicly. Jones did not indicate how long the order would remain in effect. Some people close to the case said they expected it to stay in place until the government could secure the testimony of Mayfield before a federal grand jury.

Mayfield, 37, a convert to Islam, maintains a small immigration and family-law practice in Portland. He was ordered released by Jones on Thursday. He had been held in a Portland jail since May 6, after the FBI said it had matched his fingerprint to one on a bag containing detonators that was found near a Madrid railway station.

He was never charged -- his family said he had not left the U.S. in over a decade -- but he was held under a law that permits the government to detain witnesses who are considered flight risks.

FBI spokesman Bill Carter declined to comment on the case, citing the gag order. The FBI previously said that it considered the print to be a conclusive match.


People close to the case on Friday said there was no indication that the government was backing away from its position, although public acknowledgment of a mistake in such a high-profile case would be highly unusual.

As Mayfield settled back into his home in a modest Portland suburb, receiving offers of free rent for his law office, criticism grew over the government’s handling of his case.

The Mayfield case is just the latest and highest-profile of “a long line of mistaken detentions” that show how the material witness law can be abused, said Greenberger, the former Justice Department official.

The law was intended to hold witnesses for trials. Instead the government has used the law to hold suspects while investigators build cases against them. These suspects are usually held with the general prison population and subjected to constant interrogation.

“It was never, never intended to be used this way,” said Greenberger. He suspects there are others still in detention who have not received the kind of publicity that Mayfield has received. Greenberger said he believed the Supreme Court would eventually have to address the issue.

Stanley Cohen, a New York criminal defense attorney who defended one of the so-called Portland Seven terrorists last year, said the Mayfield case had made federal investigators “put their tails between their legs.”


Cohen said it called into question not just the general way the government was pursuing terrorism cases, but also how it collected evidence. The Mayfield case reflects “incompetence” among FBI forensics experts, and a tendency among federal investigators to reach a conclusion first, and then make the evidence fit the conclusion, Cohen said.

“The FBI is now the political police of this government,” Cohen said.

The evidentiary standoff between the FBI and Spanish authorities underscores a growing debate about the reliability of fingerprints as a crime-solving tool. While fingerprints have long been deemed proof of identity, the techniques used to establish those matches have been attacked as crude and unscientific.

Mayfield’s case “highlights the lack of standards and confusion in the field as to what provides an adequate basis for identification,” said Robert Epstein, an assistant federal public defender in Philadelphia, who has challenged FBI fingerprinting techniques in court.

Spanish law enforcement officials, who were skeptical from the beginning as to whether the fingerprint in question belonged to Mayfield, said Friday that they had little doubt that it was left by the Algerian suspect, Ouhnane Daoud.

As corroborating evidence, a senior Spanish investigator said, a forensic team found traces of Daoud’s DNA in a rural cottage outside Madrid where investigators believe the terrorist cell held planning sessions and assembled the backpack bombs used in the attack.

The combination of the DNA at the hide-out and the prints on the bag containing seven detonators suggests Daoud took part in the plot and perhaps in planting the bombs, police said.


“It appears he was another soldier, not a major player but certainly someone with direct involvement,” the senior investigator said.

Because of the difference of opinion with the FBI over the fingerprint evidence, Spanish fingerprint experts did exhaustive analysis and double-checking before announcing their conclusion about Daoud, officials said.

Spanish forensics experts have extensive experience analyzing evidence in bombing cases during Spain’s 30-year struggle against ETA, the Basque terrorist group. A number of ETA operatives have been convicted in cases that hinged on fingerprint evidence from blast scenes, the senior official said.

Mayfield’s military experience intrigued Spanish police at first because they believed that someone familiar with weapons had either trained or assisted the train bombers, hardly any of whom had attended Al Qaeda’s terrorist camps. But Spanish police essentially ruled him out as a suspect after the investigation failed to find any trace of his having visited Spain.

Al Qaeda cases are full of curious international connections, but it was still hard to imagine the Portland lawyer playing a clandestine role in a terrorist cell composed mainly of North African shopkeepers, students and drug dealers, officials said. Daoud, a Spanish resident with a record of minor criminal offenses, remained at large Friday.

Thomas Nelson, a Portland attorney and a friend of the Mayfield family, said he hoped what he called the investigative mistakes and bad judgment calls made in the Mayfield case would “deter the government from continuing these practices.”


Nelson, who spoke with Mayfield after his release, said Mayfield was being “very cautious” about what he said.

“He knows this is not over yet,” Nelson said. “But he’s happy to be home with his family.”

Tizon reported from Seattle, Rotella from London and Schmitt from Washington.