Accuracy in Media

The Justice Department has renewed its campaign to indict Steven Hatfill in the court of public opinion for last fall’s unsolved anthrax killings. ABC’s ace investigative reporter Brian Ross, who had reported unfounded hearsay implicating Hatfill last June, returned to the story on ABC’s World News Tonight on Oct. 22, claiming that three bloodhounds had independently led the FBI directly to Hatfill’s apartment after sniffing scent extracted from anthrax letters posted last year.

Accuracy in Media has been looking into this story since Newsweek first reported it in August. We found that the FBI had the dogs flown here from California, even though there are at least 15 police dog teams in Maryland, including one that is on call with the Bureau’s Hostage Rescue Team. Brian Ross, without mentioning the Maryland dog teams, said the FBI considered the California dogs the best in the country, a view not shared by Maryland law enforcement officers. He ignored the controversy over the “new technology” used by the FBI to collect the scent that supposedly led the dogs to Hatfill.

Had Ross done any investigating, he would have learned, as we did, that the FBI has invested in the Scent Transfer Unit-100, which “vacuums” scent from an article onto a “scent pad.” The STU-100 is popular in California, but the two national police bloodhound associations claim that it is too susceptible to contamination to be admissible as evidence in court and have refused to endorse its use. They fear that the Bureau’s reliance on the STU-100 could discredit the use of bloodhounds in all criminal cases.

They cite a 1996 case in California in which a jury found a defendant guilty on the basis of the prosecution’s claim that the scent pad from an STU-100 had enabled a dog to track down the defendant. Police bloodhound handlers from the two national associations were incensed by “irregularities” in the dog’s use. A dog expert flew to California to testify for the defense, and one of the most experienced police dog handlers in the country submitted for the defense a detailed critique of the STU-100 and the dog handler. On the basis of this testimony, the judge threw out the jury’s conviction, and this was upheld on appeal.

Police dog handlers in Maryland are critical of the FBI’s efforts to link Hatfill to the anthrax letters using the STU-100. Hatfill says that the special agents had him sit in an empty apartment in the same building where his apartment was located, and one bloodhound was brought in. He says that he scratched the dog’s ear and the dog returned the affection. That led the handler to cry, “The dog is reacting!” Our police sources say that the FBI should have used a “line-up,” requiring the dog to single out the one matching the scent. They point out that if Hatfill was the only suspect in the room, a good defense lawyer would argue that the handlers were “directing” the dog to Hatfill, as they did in the California case where the jury verdict was overturned.

Ross said that three dogs “were each given the scent from anthrax letters posted last year, and each independently” led handlers to Hatfill’s apartment. Which apartment? The vacant one in which he was sitting or his own? If the only scent the dogs were given was from an envelope sent through the mail, how could the dogs distinguish between the person who mailed it, those who delivered it and those who determined that it contained anthrax?

Dr. Frederic Whitehurst, the special agent with a Ph.D. in chemistry whose exposure of incompetence and corruption in the FBI crime lab resulted in partial reforms and his separation from the Bureau, says what the FBI did is awful. He would like to know if the FBI has run any scientific validation studies on the STU-100. Such studies would be designed to determine the percentage of the cases in which the dogs are able to correctly match or not match humans with STU-100 scent packs.

Many of the dog handlers interviewed by AIM believe that the reason the FBI took the dogs to Hatfill’s apartment was to see if they could scare him into a confession. These handlers say that is a routine police technique, and it is not illegal. It hasn’t worked in Hatfill’s case, but the FBI, with assists from ABC and Newsweek, persists in persecuting him. They can’t prosecute him since he is only “a person of interest.”

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