The Justice Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation ought to
hang their heads in shame over the mistaken arrest and jailing of a Muslim
lawyer in Oregon who was supposed to be a material witness in the Madrid
train bombing case. The arrest turned out to be based on a faulty
fingerprint identification by F.B.I. “experts.” That finding was ultimately
retracted when more careful Spanish investigators concluded that the
fingerprint had actually been left by a different man. Federal authorities
apologized for the error and the unjustified jail time, but they still have
a lot of explaining to do. The case smacks of a rush to judgment based on
flimsy evidence. Clearly fingerprint analysis is not the gold standard it
is cracked up to be. The method itself is not foolproof, and the analysts
who provide the final judgment sometimes make the wrong call.

The fiasco started when the Spanish police sent the F.B.I. digital
photographic images of some partial latent fingerprints taken from a
plastic bag found in a van linked to the Madrid bombings. An automated
searching system compared the images with millions of prints on file and
came up with possible matches. F.B.I. analysts made the final judgment that
a print submitted from Spain was identical to prints on file for Brandon
Mayfield. Three F.B.I. examiners considered the match to be a “100 percent
identification” of Mr. Mayfield. A court-appointed examiner agreed.

Shortly thereafter, the Spanish authorities cast doubt on that judgment,
but the Justice Department sought Mr. Mayfield’s detention anyway, based on
the F.B.I.’s insistence that it had identified the right man. Investigators
offered other evidence that appeared to cast suspicion on Mr. Mayfield. He
had represented a man in a custody dispute who later pleaded guilty to
conspiring to help Al Qaeda fight American forces in Afghanistan. He had
attended a local mosque and placed ads for his law practice in a
publication whose owner was linked to terrorists. A phone call was made
between his home and the number of the local director of an Islamic charity
who was suspected of terrorist ties abroad. All that now looks coincidental.

The F.B.I. blames its error on an image of substandard quality sent by the
Spanish police. But it is shocking that the F.B.I. would initially express
certitude based on one partial print. The United States attorney in
Portland insists that religion had nothing to do with the investigation
because Mr. Mayfield was not under suspicion when the F.B.I. first analyzed
the prints. But the decision to lock up Mr. Mayfield was clearly influenced
by his Muslim ties. It is sobering evidence that the current legal
crackdown on suspected terrorists can yield injustice for those who are


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