I Would Have Acquitted Ivins

Ken AshfordCrimeLeave a Comment

Yesterday, the Federal Bureau of Investigation outlined a pattern of bizarre and deceptive conduct by Bruce E. Ivins, an Army microbiologist who killed himself last week, in an attempt to show, in the court of public opinion, that Ivins (and Ivins alone) was behind the 2001 anthrax-by-mail attacks which killed 6 people.

I’m not saying that Ivins was innocent.  I’m just saying that ALL the evidence against Ivins was circumstantial:

* The FBI Identified a "genetically unique" parent material used in attacks called RMR-1029 from single, specific flask; "created and solely maintained by Dr. Ivins;" "no one received material from that flask without going through Dr. Ivins;" ruled out all persons who could have had access to flask, except Ivins

The piece of evidence required the creation/refinement of new scientific techniques allowing more definitive identification of specific DNA family of anthrax used in mailings; these techniques were not available earlier in the case, until 2005 when the FBI had this "breakthrough".  So forensically, this "new scientific technique" is basically untried, and one has to wonder how flawed it might be.

* Ivins skilled in techniques necessary to create weaponized spores; Ivins had access to freeze-drying machine called "lyopholizer" used to create dry spores from wet material; other technicians consulted him on the proper use of this machinery, demonstrating his expertise

Yeah, he had access to a lyopholizer, because WaPo even acknowledged, Ivins:

did at least one project for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency that would have given him reason to use the drying equipment, according to a former colleague in his lab.

Glenn Greenwald did a little investigative work of his own on this matter:

This morning I spoke with Dr. Luke D. Jasenosky of the Harvard School of Medicine’s Immune Disease Institute. Dr. Jasenosky said that it is "very common" for someone engaged in the vaccine research of the type Ivins did to use a lyophilizer, and that he "would actually be surprised if they weren’t using one."

* In days leading up to each mailing, Ivins was working "inordinate" number of off-hours, particularly at night and also on weekends, in the lab; records show he did not work such hours either before or after the attacks; Ivins was never able to provide "satisfactory" answer as to why he was working strange hours

Circumstantial.  And of course, no answer would be "satisfactory" to an investigative body trying to pin a crime on someone

* Demonstrated "consciousness of guilt" — examples: during search, took "highly unusual" steps to hide book on DNA coding; submitted "questionable sample" of his parent spores to FBI when requested (presumably to deliberately get a false negative on a comparative test)

Circumstantial and a matter of opinion; hardly factual evidence

* Made "far-reaching" efforts to blame others and deflect attention from himself

Isn’t that what an innocent person might do, too?

* Made detailed threats to kill people in his group therapy sessions

This allegation comes exclusive from a social worker in those group therapy sessions, Jean Duley, who took out a retraining order against Ivins two weeks ago (a week before Ivins commited suicide).  But Duley is no model citizen; she’s got a string of DWI arrests, as well as charges for spousal battery, and possession of drug paraphenalia with intent to use.  Furthermore, her retraining order against Duley was made only after the FBI, who was targetting Ivins, suggest that she make it.

Duey, by the way, never actually heard Ivins make death threats.  She was told by some third party that Ivins made those threats.  THAT is what we call hearsay, and it would have been inadmissible in court.

* Ivins had a history of mental health problems

Well, depression and anxiety, for which he was treated with medication, which he took.  Like millions of other Americans. 

* Throughout his adult life, had frequently driven to other locations to send packages under assumed names to disguise his identity as the sender; admitted to using psuedonyms; was a prolific writer to Congress and the media (thus demonstrating his interests and habits seemed congruent with the "Amerithrax" mailer)

Actually, Ivins had PO boxes under an assumed name…. to receive porn.  Oooooohhhh.

* Envelopes used in attacks were all pre-franked sold only by post offices during 9-month period in 2001; analysis shows defects in ink on pre-printed portions of envelopes; this defect is similar to defects in printing sold by the post office in the Frederick, MD area (where Ivins lived and maintained a PO box); spokesman calls it "very likely" envelopes were purchased in Frederick MD

Why is it "very likely"?  Because both things have a connection to Frederick, MD?

Now, that’s just some of the so-called "evidence" against Ivins, and most of it is circumstantial.  The only forensic evidence was the questionable and untested "new scientific technique" which linked the anthrax to that particular lab, not necessarily to Ivins.  (In fact, the NYT today reports that more than 100 people had access to that particular strain of anthrax in the lab).

And, of course, Ivins use of the lyopholizer, which, as I said, he would have used anyway for legitimate purposes.

But what is more alarming is what the FBI couldn’t get in terms of hard evidence against Ivins:

*  The FBI couldn’t place him in Princeton NJ, where the anthrax letters were mailed

*  They couldn’t find a single spore of the particular anthrax strain in Ivin’s car or house.

All in all, not a whole lot of things there — certainly not enough to convict.  (And indeed, the Grand Jury still hadn’t handed down an indictment against Ivins, so there’s no telling if they were convinced).

It should also be remembered that the FBI set its sites on another suspect back in 2002 — Steven Hatfill.   Hatfill responded by fighting fire with fire — he held press conferences and initiated many legal efforts, culminiating in getting the FBI to not only back off.  In short, the FBI got it wrong.

But Ivins was a different kind of guy, a gentler man.  When he became the target, Ivins got depressed. Then killed himself, apparently.

Again, I’m not saying Ivins was innocent.  I’m just saying that, based on what the FBI has presented to date, I wouldn’t have convicted.

For some interesting reading on this subject, I suggest the blog of Dr. Meryl Ness, who is (like Ivins) a specialist in the field of anthrax vaccines.  And Glenn Greenwald (see link above) is all over it too.