The apparent suicide of a suspect in the 2001 anthrax mail attacks this week is spurring questions from legal observers of the 7-year-long federal investigation: Was Bruce E. Ivins' death a sign of guilt or the act of an innocent man unwilling to endure public accusations?
Many suspects in high-profile federal investigations have been cleared only to suffer the lasting effects of ruined careers, health and reputations. And many believe government officials try to help their cases by deliberately leaking damaging information to the news media without official charges.
FBI had identified Steven J. Hatfill, a former weapons expert at Fort Detrick in Frederick, as their chief suspect for years in the attacks that killed five people. Then, last month, the government exonerated him with a nearly $6 million settlement.
Last August, Richard Jewell died of a heart attack at age 44, nearly 11 years after federal officials leaked his name as a suspect in the Centennial Olympic Park bombing in Atlanta. His attorney said the stress of those accusations likely played a significant role in his death at such a young age, despite his winning several settlements.
Wen Ho Lee was a nuclear physicist detained in solitary confinement for 10 months by the government as a suspected spy for China. Last summer, he was paid nearly $1.6 million by the federal government and five media organizations to settle a lawsuit that his privacy was violated.
"When you are hunted by the government, you can never fully recover your reputation or your peace of mind," said Betsy A. Miller, an attorney who represented him. "There's no question in cases like Dr. Hatfill and Dr. Lee that you are never made whole."
In Maryland, federal investigations have cast damaging clouds over public officials as well with high-profile probes that went nowhere despite numerous leaks.
Stephen P. Amos, who headed the Maryland Governor's Office of Crime Control and Prevention under Democrat Parris N. Glendening, was investigated by the U.S. attorney for Maryland from 2002 until 2005. when the charges were dropped and the indictment expunged.
But the case cost Amos his marriage, house, savings and career.
"A person who has the full force of the government's investigative resources directed toward them ... suffers a tremendous amount of pressure during the course of that investigation, which is only compounded immeasurably if you are innocent," said Amos' attorney, Gregg Bernstein, a former federal prosecutor in Maryland.
U.S. Attorney Thomas M. DiBiagio also investigated the Baltimore City Council for public corruption allegations from 2003 until 2005. The case ended without charges after DiBiagio, appointed by a Republican administration, left office after accusations that his corruptions cases were politically motivated against the all-Democratic council.
"You wonder day to day when the other shoe is going to drop or if there is another shoe to drop," City Councilman Robert W. Curran said.
Whether at the grocery store or at Pimlico Race Course, people would approach Curran and ask: "What did you guys do?" he said.
"We're tried more in the court of public opinion," he added.
Bernstein said federal law enforcement officials need the latitude to explore all leads in important cases and that they should be held accountable when they act in "bad faith," a standard that can be hard to prove.
"If individuals subject to criminal investigation could simply sue the government every time they were acquitted it would have a very chilling effect on law enforcement and federal prosecutors' duties and obligations to investigate criminal activity," he said. "We don't want prosecutors and law enforcement looking over their shoulder every time they make investigative and prosecutorial decisions."
But, he added, investigators need to be aware of how "terrifying" and hurtful their power can be, especially to people who end up not getting charged.
"These investigation can last for years," he said. "It's as if you have a scarlet letter on your shirt or blouse. Basic decisions are put on hold because you don't know what the outcome of the investigation is going to be."
Lin Wood, the attorney for Jewell in the Olympic bombing case, said his client "for 88 days lived with the fear that he would be falsely accused in connection to a terrorist bombing, which carries with it the death penalty if convicted."
"Because of the leaks from government sources coupled with the media frenzy, Richard had two of the most powerful entities in the world bearing down on him: the government and the media," said Wood of the Atlanta law firm of Powell Goldstein. "The investigation changed his life forever."
Several public officials, including former Attorney General Janet Reno and a former FBI director, publicly stated that Jewell, a security guard who spotted the bomb that exploded at the Olympic park, was innocent.
Wood said that too often the media and law enforcement work together to the detriment of suspects who are never charged. He blamed the media's willingness to publish information from unnamed government sources, which allows investigation officials to escape accountability.
Wood said when he obtained the government's evidence, it contained nothing that linked Jewell to the bombing.
Miller said federal officials need to be held accountable for the information they leak to the media. "That's the lesson from the [anthrax] case: The incentive should be for the government to behave itself and to seek justice in a way that is appropriate," Miller said. "They have human lives at stake."
The anthrax case suffered from the same type of leaks that cast Hatfill as a suspect for years, and the apparent suicide of Ivins could lead many to two different conclusions.
"One could jump to the conclusion of guilt, or one could jump to the conclusion of the mental stress of being accused of a crime you didn't commit," Wood said.
Ivins' attorney said in a statement that his client's death was caused by the scrutiny and that he was innocent of any charges in the anthrax case.
"The relentless pressure of accusation and innuendo takes its toll in different ways on different people, as has already been seen in this investigation," said the statement from Paul F. Kemp. "In Dr. Ivins' case, it led to his untimely death."
Death brings questions
Apparent suicide of anthrax suspect challenges role of leaks in probes
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