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Crime Science

Researchers Dispute Closing of the Bruce Ivins Anthrax Case 82

Stirling Newberry writes "The New York Times reports that an upcoming paper by Martin E. Hugh-Jones, Barbara Hatch Rosenberg, and Stuart Jacobsen – all of whom have long questioned the closing of the Bruce Ivins anthrax case – points to the presence of tin in the spore samples as a sign that the samples mailed had been processed beyond what Ivins alone could have done. While not disputing that the spores came from Ft. Detrick, Hugh-Jones, who has co-authored several papers on anthrax signatures, contends according to the Times: 'it appears likely that Dr. Ivins could not have made the anthrax powder alone with the equipment he possessed, as the F.B.I. maintains. That would mean either that he got the powder from elsewhere or that he was not the perpetrator.' For a good summary of the case from a medical standpoint, this paper in the Annals of Internal Medicine is an excellent place to start. A review by the National Resources Council that stated the evidence available was not sufficient to locate the source of the spores is also available."
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Researchers Dispute Closing of the Bruce Ivins Anthrax Case

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  • You do realize... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by tkrotchko ( 124118 ) on Tuesday October 11, 2011 @07:34AM (#37677796) Homepage

    ...that once the police "get their man", their effort is spent proving that he was the guy, not to look for things that disprove their theory, correct?

    • by MartinSchou ( 1360093 ) on Tuesday October 11, 2011 @07:41AM (#37677856)

      While this may be true, it is a dangerous way to proceed. If you spend too much time focusing on suspect A, and it later turns out that A did not do what he was suspected of, you now, essentially, have no case (depending on how long you spent focused on A).

      Like this particular case. Suppose that these researchers are correct - Bruce Ivins couldn't have done this on his own or he wasn't the perpetrator. There is no way to hold the responsible people accountable now, and there is no incentive to do so either - in fact it might even be career suicide to try to restart an investigation like this, simply because of the number of people who will lose face.

      To some extent, police investigations fail scientific rigor. They come up with a hypothesis and try their hardest to find evidence to support it, rather than coming up with a hypothesis and trying to disprove it.

      • by maxume ( 22995 ) on Tuesday October 11, 2011 @07:44AM (#37677870)

        I demand control murders!

      • Re:You do realize... (Score:4, Interesting)

        by 1s44c ( 552956 ) on Tuesday October 11, 2011 @07:49AM (#37677894)

        To some extent, police investigations fail scientific rigor. They come up with a hypothesis and try their hardest to find evidence to support it, rather than coming up with a hypothesis and trying to disprove it.

        The court system is meant to try and disprove it. In practise they are more interested in finding loopholes in law than proving or disproving facts.

        • Re:You do realize... (Score:4, Interesting)

          by Joce640k ( 829181 ) on Tuesday October 11, 2011 @07:57AM (#37677980) Homepage

          Let's see: On the hand you've got a huge, government-funded agency with hundreds of people working with fancy equipment, etc. trying to prove a case.

          On the other you've got ... whatever the defendant can afford to pay.

          Are you surprised they go for loopholes rather than trying to prove their innocence via facts/evidence?

      • by Anonymous Coward

        It's called cognitive dissonance. The police, their prosecutors and religious people are those most likely to fall into it. The first two shrug it off as "they probably did something wrong anyway". It's a big problem, because they lose valuable time and leads focusing on the wrong target. They ruin the wrongly accused's life, and let the real villain slip away.

      • Re: (Score:2, Troll)

        The State is trustworthy. It does not make mistakes. Only a fool questions the State.
        The State is essential. Only a fool thinks he can survive without the State. The State must continue at all costs.

      • by khallow ( 566160 )

        To some extent, police investigations fail scientific rigor.

        Police investigations are not scientific investigations. Don't make the mistake of confusing the two! They have different purposes, criteria, and to a limited extent, different methods.

      • If I recall this event correctly, didn't they try to hang this on another guy first, and then laid on Ivins doorstep when that didn't fly? Then Ivins killed himself so that was all fine and tidy, case closed, for the FBI?

    • by einhverfr ( 238914 ) <<moc.liamg> <ta> <srevart.sirhc>> on Tuesday October 11, 2011 @08:05AM (#37678058) Homepage Journal

      This is true. But it makes you wonder how many are wrongly convicted. I suspect the number of innocent in prison is quite a bit higher than we'd like to think.

      In terrorism investigations you also have the problem today of Randy Weaver-style entrapment. I presume this was not present in the anthax case, but it's hard to rule it out.

      • by Alomex ( 148003 )

        I suspect the number of innocent in prison is quite a bit higher than we'd like to think.

        I think the number that would actually be really high is innocent people on probation (perhaps after a short time served) who pleaded guilty just to avoid the grinding wheels of (in)justice.

        • That number too.

          But also take into account the fact that a lot of laws are really quite vague and it isn't clear even after you have been arrested whether your conduct violated the law or not (for example, look at Lori Drew)....

      • But it makes you wonder how many are wrongly convicted. I suspect the number of innocent in prison is quite a bit higher than we'd like to think.

        Don't you worry about innocent people, Citizen. We have legalised execution in this country to make sure that the innocent accused don't suffer in prison for too long. Providing that we can get the anaesthetics (which we can't).

  • My first thought was, how was the glassware used in making and storing the anthrax prepared? It'd be pretty easy to get some measurable tin contamination just from things like not acid washing the glassware used, and I'd be a little surprised if that had been done.(Admittedly, I'm not a microbiologist, but glass tends to hang onto cations like metals. I'm not sure why you'd take extraordinary measures to get rid of it unless you were planning to have it trace element analyzed.)

    When they first detected trace

  • by no-body ( 127863 ) on Tuesday October 11, 2011 @07:41AM (#37677848)

    seems to be success pressure in high profile cases. Showing results is paramount over doing it right and just.

    Troy Davis being one recent example and Bruce Ivins may have been another casualty to this pressure, seeing the injustice and facing the witch-hunt could have driven him to suicide which makes it easy to label him guilty: SUCCESS!

    Trust to US justice system and other institutions (FBI, CIA, Police) is reduced more and more.

    • Wen Ho Lee [washingtonpost.com].
    • by fermion ( 181285 )
      Also scientific proof is different from legal proof. There was enough evidence on Bruce Ivins to go to court. A jury may or may not have found him guilty based on that evidence. This is the only legal need in the US. To be convicted by a jury of your peers. OTOH, scientific proof is more iterative, and more tolerant to refinement.

      We will never know if Ivins is guilty by law because the case will never go to court. The scientific exercise is interesting but irrelevant. What we do know is that he had

    • What does the Troy Davis case have to do with this (except that it was about a guilty man that anti-death penatly advocates claimed was innocent)?
      • It was not that he was innocent it was that there was some questions of the evidence so that he should be locked away from life instead of being executed.
        • What questions? That 7 of 9 of 34 witnesses sort of recanted their testimony (except that they didn't really and that the Davis defense team did not call several of them even though they were in the courtroom during his appeal)?
          • That 7 of 9 of 34 witnesses sort of recanted their testimony

            Mmm, 7 of 9.

            • That 7 of 9 of 34 witnesses sort of recanted their testimony

              Mmm, 7 of 9.

              There were 34 prosecution witnesses that tied Davis to one or both of the murders he was accused of.

              • by Uberbah ( 647458 )

                In the dark from 60, 100+ feet away, with NO other evidence tying him to the shooting. Funny how you left that part out.

      • by Nadaka ( 224565 )

        I am pro death penalty.

        But you don't execute a man without physical evidence.

        You don't execute a man when the witnesses are pressured and threatened by the police and later recant.

        You don't execute a man unless you are absolutely certain he is irredeemable and can never be reformed.

        The simple killing of a police officer is not such a crime.

        Execution should be reserved only for mass murderers, serial killers and other habitually violent offenders.

        • OK, except the fact that only 7 of 9 of 34 witnesses recanted and of those 7, most did not actually recant their testimony. Additionally, when Troy Davis got the chance to get a rehearing, his defense team did not call some of those who they claimed had recanted.
          • by Nadaka ( 224565 )

            1: No physical evidence.
            2: Killing one police officer does not justify the death penalty.

            He still should not have been executed.

            • by gmhowell ( 26755 )

              2: Killing one police officer does not justify the death penalty.

              Some animals are more equal than others.

        • Also you don't execute a man if you're a Christian.
          • by Nadaka ( 224565 )

            I sympathize with and understand those who oppose the death penalty on ethical grounds, but Christians have no ethical foundation in their religion to make that argument. Why shouldn't Christians kill? They worship the same brutal psychopathic genocidal evil god as the jews and muslims. I was raised as a fundamentalist Christian. It is in spite of that, rather than because of that, that I am now a good and moral person.

            • Why shouldn't Christians kill?

              Well that whole 6th (5th?) commandment gets in the way sometimes.

              Thou shalt not kill

              Of course, most of the Christian religion is based around the theme of, "Do as I say, not as I do." But since that is also one of the fundamental parenting techniques we use to raise kids in the States, it shouldn't come as a suprise that it is widely accepted.

        • I agree that there are criminals who could do with killing. Clifford Robert Olson for one, and I could probably think of a few more I would not hesitate to have the state kill, because I really don't think they are human beings.

          For me the the problem with the death penalty is the false positives. No matter how you set up your criteria for executing somebody, you will from time to time execute an innocent man. If you're ok with that then you can support the death penalty, but for me that is an unaceptable
          • by Nadaka ( 224565 )

            I completely understand your point of view. If I had to choose between the Texas style death penalty and no death penalty, i would certainly choose no death penalty. But I believe that the false positive rate can be reduced to zero if the requirements are sufficiently strict.

            Charles Manson, John Wayne Gacy, Anders Breivik, Jeffrey Dahmer, etc. All people who really should die. Each one committed multiple horrific murders without remorse. In each case the evidence goes so far beyond any shadow of doubt that

    • Please do not attempt to link his case to Bruce Ivins, Bruce actually may be innocent. Troy Davis's "innocence" is built on a well developed case of misinformation or purposeful omission. Many love to claim that seven out of nine witnesses changed their story implying that there were only nine whereas there there were thirty four witnesses brought forward. In the seven of nine group the DEFENSE refused to allow to two to go before the judge as required. One of those was a person they were trying to implicat

      • Look, I haven't even read anything about the case that I remember, but I can already tell by the fact that you are talking about seven of nine of thirty four that you are repeating lies. In a criminal case there are always lots of witnesses. People who have nothing to do with seeing the actual event, but, for example, testify that the victim owned a red dress. That there are tonnes of witnesses who didn't recant talks nothing about the witnesses that actually were key and that did recant.

        Now I read up

      • by Uberbah ( 647458 )

        BS. Forget those that recanted, the conviction in the first place was entirely based on eyewitness testimony. From 60, 120 feet away. When it was dark (nighttime).

        Sentencing a man to death on that evidence is complete and utter bullshit, whether those witnesses recanted or maintained their stories for the rest of their lives.

    • by failedlogic ( 627314 ) on Tuesday October 11, 2011 @05:36PM (#37684714)

      Look at the Olympic Park Bombing in Atlanta. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Centennial_Olympic_Park_bombing [wikipedia.org]

      The President even said we'll find the guy who did it. Not much more high profile than that.

      The media made a frenzy as soon as the police found a suspect or rather a list of suspects. One of them was a hero - tried to clear others away after spotting a suspicious package. Found not guilty. Still suffers from serious harm to his reputation. I'm not mentionning the name if only to avoid another Google link to his name and the incident. I hope this would help him out. A recent interview on television just this year (15 years after the incident) and he says it still effects him - the way others view him, financial problems ....

      • A recent interview on television just this year (15 years after the incident) and he says it still effects him - the way others view him, financial problems ....

        I would imagine so, him being dead for four years now.

  • by firex726 ( 1188453 ) on Tuesday October 11, 2011 @07:51AM (#37677920)

    While only tangentially related it seems many in Law Enforcement are not too keen on the idea of chemistry in general.

    All too often they will arrest someone who has a DIY home lab setup, for running a meth lab, despite not having the necessary supplies to make meth. All you need as far as LE goes is a few beakers and a Bunsen burner and you're making meth.

    • by tgd ( 2822 )

      While only tangentially related it seems many in Law Enforcement are not too keen on the idea of chemistry in general.

      All too often they will arrest someone who has a DIY home lab setup, for running a meth lab, despite not having the necessary supplies to make meth. All you need as far as LE goes is a few beakers and a Bunsen burner and you're making meth.

      Better than dihydrogen monoxide!

  • Disproving a case (Score:5, Informative)

    by Alomex ( 148003 ) on Tuesday October 11, 2011 @07:54AM (#37677940) Homepage

    The researchers found a single inconsistency in the FBI's case: the sample has too much tin. This alone is not enough to disprove it. There are alternative explanations.

    As well, anecdotally, apparently even the most open and shut cases have at least one extremely odd occurrence that is hard to explain. And by open and shut cases I mean cases where the murderer took the police to where he had buried the bodies.

    For example, the murderer drove in 10 minutes a distance than normally takes 25 minutes. Or a disgruntled former employee who lives nowhere the scene of the crime happened to walk by at the same time the guilty person was committing the murder.

    On the other hand, it is also true that once policemen zero in on a potential target they have a really hard time retargeting their sights. This happened to Richard Jewell, who on the basis of the evidence should have been declared not a suspect much much earlier. But the FBI had become convinced he was guilty and kept on ignoring and rejecting exculpatory evidence.

    • by doug141 ( 863552 )

      This alone is not enough to disprove it. .

      ... to most people. Single inconsistencies still outside today's understanding are fuel for people who come to be known as conspiracy theorists. Nano-thermite? Conspiracy! Odd terminal ballistics? Consiracy! Weeping statue? Divine intervention!

      • by Alomex ( 148003 )

        We are also bad at estimating the odds when the random trial is not determined ahead of time. For example, let's say we are trying to prove/disprove that person A is stalking person B. Most people would accept as substantial proof a CCTV picture of A walking a few steps behind B.

        However if we consider that A and B might know each other and hence move in similar circles, the chances that they ever appeared in a single frame are not that low. Still a bit of a coincidence, but not very surprising.

        What would be

    • by Uberbah ( 647458 )

      The researchers found a single inconsistency in the FBI's case

      Single inconsistency? Not so much: [salon.com]

      Authorities assume that he drove to Princeton immediately after that, dropping the letters in a mailbox on a well-traveled street across from the university campus. Ivins would have had to have left quickly to return for an appointment in the early evening, about 4 or 5 p.m.

      The fastest one can drive from Frederick, Maryland to Princeton, New Jersey is 3 hours, which would mean that Ivins would have had to

      • by Alomex ( 148003 )

        Right, because it couldn't possibly have happened that the mailman was late picking up the mail, thus postmarking it September 18 even though it was dropped before 5pm on the 17th.

        That just never happens, no siree bob.

        • by Uberbah ( 647458 )

          Right, so you didn't bother to actually read what was quoted, which blows a hole in the timeline that the FBI constructed for the case.

  • That you are living life on the edge if you have the stuff to make anthrax just laying around!

    • by Anonymous Coward

      Does this mean I should destroy my Charvel-Jackson guitars and ditch the double bass drum kit?

  • If any of the 9/11 "government/Jews/missiles did it" (did I miss anyone?) get a hold of this story, I can only imagine what stuff they'll think up. Could he have had help- dunno, I'm not a chemist. Is the government covering something up- I kind of doubt they are covering up their own "we helped him!", but maybe leaving some other parties out of the news (then and now). Or, as some others have already said, they got someone who looked good for it, and "case closed," time for a donut.

    I'm all for looking i

  • I recently listened to a podcast from NPR's Science Friday in which the interviewee (whose name I don't recall) suggested that her research indicated that one of the 9/11 hijackers had some anthrax DNA on his hands that matched the strain in the envelope/mail attacks. The additional information she provided indicated that the Bora Bora caves (where we just missed Bin Laden) had twice tested with positive matches for the same anthrax strain.

    The suggestion was that the 9/11 hijackers had possibly sent out th

  • This is such a waste of money...the FBI's most expensive case EVER.

    DO you notice a trend that the US government seems to think that the more money we put into something (and fail), the more ADDITIONAL funding is used to push ourselves deeper into the void...?

    What the F. Give me my money back!
    • DO you notice a trend that the US government seems to think that the more money we put into something (and fail), the more ADDITIONAL funding is used to push ourselves deeper into the void...?
      FBI --> Peanuts. You should see that modus operandi in action over at the DoD.

  • Can we even believe is was suicide? Sure seemed awful convienient even before ever-mounting doubts.
  • by mattack2 ( 1165421 ) on Tuesday October 11, 2011 @12:59PM (#37681454)

    Over the weekend, I watched a CNN documentary (and they usually rerun sporadically for months) about the anthrax case. I also saw that there's a new Frontline that airs this week about the anthrax case too. (The CNN documentary didn't cover this dispute.)

  • The intent of the anthrax attacks was to whip the MSM news into complacency as to what the Bush Administration wanted.

    And this was half of the machinery planned.

    The other half was the Telcos spying on the American Public for the GOV. with the insane excuse of looking for terrorist. Since language and its components are only of value to the meaning attached by those using it, any communication by terrorist could easily be designed to come off as common conversation, meaning something different to those liste

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