Vindication May Be Near for Hatfill

Other News Materials 2 August 2008 02:14 (UTC +04:00)

For six years, Steven J. Hatfill has sought in public and in court to clear his name after being named a їperson of interestї in the 2001 anthrax investigation.

On Friday, the disclosure that a former colleague of Dr. Hatfill committed suicide after investigators prepared to indict him provided the clearest indication yet that Dr. Hatfill may finally achieve his goal.

The Justice Department, which has not publicly exonerated the former Army scientist, would not comment about the case on Friday. But by all indications, investigators have lost interest in Dr. Hatfill.

A lawyer familiar with the investigation of Bruce E. Ivins, Dr. Hatfillїs former colleague at the Armyїs bio-defense labs at Fort Detrick, who died earlier this week after ingesting an overdose of prescription painkillers, said that Dr. Ivins was expected to be indicted alone.

The former Army scientist spent years in the glare of official suspicion after someone sent envelopes containing anthrax powder to government officials and news media outlets in late 2001.

Those suspicions became public in mid-2002, when television crews filmed agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation wearing biohazard suits as they raided Dr. Hatfillїs apartment. Then-Attorney General John Ashcroft later described Dr. Hatfill as a їperson of interestї in the investigation.

Dr. Hatfill gave a tearful press conference in August 2002 denying any involvement in the attacks and contending that he had been smeared by F.B.I. leaks and irresponsible reporting.

But he would spend years under the microscope. He accused investigators of tipping off the media in advance of the search of his home, and later of conducting constant surveillance of him. His home phone was wiretapped, he said, and agents followed him wherever he went.

In a May 2003 incident in the Washington, D.C., neighborhood of Georgetown, Dr. Hatfill approached the car of an F.B.I. agent who had been trailing him in order to take the driverїs picture. The agent drove off and his car ran over Dr. Hatfillїs foot. Police later ticketed Dr. Hatfill for їwalking to create a hazardї and he was forced to pay a fine of $5. The driver was not ticketed.

Steadfastly maintaining his innocence and declaring that his life was being destroyed by harassment, Dr. Hatfill went to court to try to clear his name.

He filed a lawsuit against the government contending that officials had leaked information about him in violation of the Privacy Act. As part of that case, the court subpoenaed reporters who had quoted anonymous law enforcement officials about his case in an attempt to force them to reveal their sources.

Earlier this year, the judge in the case, Reggie Walton, found Toni Lacy, a former reporter for USA Today, in contempt of court when she refused to reveal the sources of information in several articles about the case.

їThereїs not a scintilla of evidence to suggest Dr. Hatfill had anything to do with it,ї Judge Walton said at the time, yet the public notoriety has їdestroyed his life.ї

Ms. Lacy appealed the decision, but Dr. Hatfillїs lawyers dropped their demands for her testimony after the United States government agreed in June to pay the former Army scientist $2.825 million and an annual annuity of $150,000 to settle the lawsuit.

Dr. Hatfill also sought to clear his name by suing news outlets, saying that articles suggesting that he might have been behind the anthrax mailings had defamed him.

He sued The New York Times and one of its op-ed columnists, Nicholas D. Kristof. That lawsuit was dismissed, but Dr. Hatfill has appealed the dismissal.

The former Army scientist also sued Vanity Fair and the author of an article about the case in the magazine, Donald Foster, as well as Readerїs Digest, which had republished a version. The case was settled confidentially in 2007.

Thomas G. Connolly, an attorney for Dr. Hatfill, said on Friday that he had їnothing at this pointї to say about the case. Mr. Connolly said that he would wait until the FBI released more information about its investigation of Dr. Ivins after first briefing the family members of the victims.

їOut of respect for the victimsї families, weїre not going to make any comments until the families are briefed,ї Mr. Connolly said.

Dr. Hatfill, Mr. Connolly added, was not interested in speaking directly with the media about the case. ( www.nytimes.com )