A Portland lawyer was improperly linked to the Madrid train bombings because a high-ranking supervisor bungled a fingerprint examination and three of his underlings were too afraid to contradict him, a panel of forensic experts found.
The conclusion shows that human error played a larger role than originally thought in the botched investigation. The FBI had said a hazy and low-resolution fingerprint image caused authorities to connect attorney Brandon Mayfield to the March 11 terrorist attack that killed 191 people.
Mayfield, a convert to Islam, was arrested in May after the FBI said his fingerprint was found on a bag of detonators in Madrid. He was held for two weeks before being released, a setback to the Bush administration in the war on terrorism.
Report: Analyst affected by pressure
The report concluded that the FBI analyst who was first asked to examine the fingerprint was influenced by “the inherent pressure of working an extremely high-profile case.” He also felt pressured by the fact that the FBI’s database had spit out Mayfield’s name as the fourth most likely candidate matching the print, the report states.
Once the first examiner — described as a “highly respected supervisor with many years experience — made up his mind, the next three analysts, including one court-appointed expert, did not dare challenge him, according to the report.
“To disagree was not an expected response,” said Robert Stacey, the author of the final report published this month in the Journal of Forensic Identification.
Fewer points of similarity
The panel wrote that it is understandable why the first FBI examiner decided to take the print into consideration, since enough similarities did exist. The print had seven points of similarity with Mayfield’s print, while a reliable match would normally entail at least 12 to 13 matching characteristics, the report states.
But the panel faults the first analyst — and the other examiners — for letting their initial judgment cloud their subsequent examination.
Agent Ann Todd, a spokeswoman for the FBI Laboratory in Virginia, said the agency has created eight teams of scientists to address the panel’s concerns.
“The lab is going above and beyond to make sure this doesn’t happen again and to look at the recommendations by the panel,” she told The Oregonian.
The FBI issued a rare public apology after Mayfield’s release — but maintained the error was due to the low resolution of the print. Mayfield is suing the government, alleging that he was singled out because of his Muslim faith.