A federal judge yesterday cleared Portland attorney Brandon Mayfield of ties to the Madrid train bombings after the FBI made the stunning admission that it erred when analyzing a copy of fingerprints.
Portland’s FBI Special Agent in Charge, Robert Jordan, said the error, based on a “substandard” copy of the prints, will prompt the agency to review its guidelines for making identifications and ask an international panel of experts to analyze what went wrong.
He also apologized to Mayfield, a former Army officer and Muslim convert who was mistakenly arrested earlier this month as a material witness in the March 11 terrorist attack that killed 191 and wounded some 2,000.
“The FBI regrets the hardships that this has placed on Mr. Mayfield and his family,” Jordan said.
Mayfield, 37, who appeared at a news conference with his family and his federal public defenders, said he was angry but was trying to “decompress.”
“I am just two or three days out of the detention facility, and I’m just starting not to shake,” said Mayfield, who was released Thursday. He was speaking about the case for the first time because U.S. District Judge Robert Jones lifted a gag order.
“I’ve been singled out and discriminated against, I feel, as a Muslim,” Mayfield said.
U.S. Attorney Karin Immergut of Portland denied that Mayfield was targeted because of his religion. “I can assure you that is not true,” she said.
The flawed case against Mayfield raises new concerns about the reliability of FBI procedures used in fingerprint forensic science. In making the link between Mayfield and a blue plastic bag containing detonators found near a Madrid train station, FBI officials relied on a digital copy of prints that Jordan said was of “substandard quality.”
Only last weekend did two agents fly to Madrid to take a look at the original print that Spanish officials eventually linked to an Algerian with a criminal record.
“Why was a substandard image used to make a positive identification?” asked fingerprint expert Pat Wertheim, based in Arizona. “I’m sure the FBI will be doing a lot of soul-searching. A lot of us in the fingerprint profession will be waiting for the answer so that we can adopt measures to prevent a repeat of this tragic arrest.”
The collapse of the Mayfield case also is providing ammunition to critics of the Bush administration’s homefront handling of the war on terror. Mayfield was never charged with a crime but was arrested as a material witness with possible information about the Madrid bombing. The use of the material-witness statute has emerged as a controversial legal tactic in the war on terrorism, and Mayfield added his voice to the critics.
“There are other material witnesses languishing away,” he said. “In my estimation, it’s an abuse of the judicial process.”
Court records released yesterday sketch the outlines of the investigative effort that led to Mayfield’s May 6 arrest and two-week detention in the Multnomah County Jail. According to documents, Mayfield’s prints were among the best 15 matches found by the FBI fingerprint computer, which holds the prints of some 45 million persons.
Those matches were then compared by FBI examiners to the digital image of a partial print sent by Spanish authorities, who concluded the print was a “100 percent identification” with Mayfield.