D.C. Lawyer With Local Ties Presents The Legal Case of the Anthrax Murders 7/9/17 06/09/17 12:26:02 AM
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Tom Connolly’s lecture found him roaming around the stage area, everywhere but behind the podium. While his style was casual, his words carried weight as he discussed some of his most high-profile cases. His father, recently retired Nebraska Supreme Court Justice William M. Connolly, watches from his seat front row right.
D.C. Lawyer With Local Ties Presents
The Legal Case of the Anthrax Murders
By Lorraine Boyd
The Daily Record
Each year, the Creighton University School of Law hosts a Koley Lecture, named for a titan of the legal community in Omaha. The 2017 speaker was Tom Connolly, a Washington, D.C. trial lawyer who has been described as “pound for pound the best trial lawyer of his generation.”
He’s also been described as a “large, scary leprechaun,” which should keep his ego in check.
His topic of choice for the lecture, held in March at the law school, was the Anthrax Murders.
Creighton Law Professor G. Michael Fenner told the crowd that Connelly is a “great storyteller, and the story he’s going to tell you today is what happened after he went to the partners in his law firm [of Harris, Wiltshire & Grannis] and said, “There’s a man who I think is getting screwed and I want to represent … and it’s going to take a lot of time and we won’t make any money.” And they said, ‘Go do it.’”
After announcing, “I’m going to spend the next five minutes correcting Prof. Fenner; it’s my rebuttal,” he launched his presentation.
Connolly opened by declaring, “I think I was born to be a trial lawyer.”
He told how his father, the Adams, Neb., County Attorney, would take him to cases that he was trying. He would give him his notes on important cross-examinations or closing arguments and his son would follow along. “And he was brilliant. I wanted to be that good. I don’t think I have accomplished that.”
From John Ashcroft’s ouster to dogs Tinkerbell and Knight, “Most of the science and math put forth in a courtroom is complete
Connolly touched on a range of topics. and utter bunk,” Connolly said.
His father is William M. Connolly, recently retired Nebraska Supreme Court Justice and currently a mediation lawyer at Erickson & Sederstrom PC, LLO in Omaha. He, along with former Justice D. Nick Caporale and current Justice John F. Wright, as well as U.S. District Court Judge Lyle E. Strom, sat in the front row.
Connolly began. “I tried my first lawsuit when I was 12 years old.”
He was a paperboy for the Omaha World-Herald. His distributor claimed he hadn’t paid his fees and sued him and his father in small claims court. When his father got the summons he said, “You’re on your own, pal.”
He represented himself. He realized mid-trial that checks leave a trail and he could present evidence that he had paid the fees. He did, and won a dismissal.
“That was my last civil case for the next 30 years.
“My talk today is about the collision of interests between the free press and the presumption of innocence. It is told through the story of Dr. Steven Hatfill.”
It was the case that created unprecented fear in Americans beginning in 2001. The envelopes that contained anthrax spores were mailed to politicians and news media. Five people died and another 17 were injured.
“How it was that Dr. Steve Hatfill became the face of the Anthrax murders. How it was that the FBI in its bungling decided it was him and how it was that they decided to serve him up to an eager press to send a message to the public that ‘We got our man.’”
Connolly explained how he came to represent Dr. Hatfill.
To understand the Anthrax Murders, he said, you need to have historical context.
The four most jarring events in our country’s history were:
1. The American Civil War, which led to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln;
2. The bombing of Pearl Harbor, which led to the internment of fellow American citizens;
3. The assassination of JFK that shook us to our core; and
4. Then we have 9/11, which led to the passage of the Patriot Act and state-sponsored torture. It also led to the Iraq war because we believed that Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.
“When American citizens feel threatened, we change our norms,” Connolly said.
A week after 9/11, the first anthrax letters were sent. The first victim was National Enquirer photo editor Bob Stevens. It was a nation in panic.
When the press reported on the FBI’s investigation into the first murder, they ran a picture of Dr. Hatfill as a suspect, and they offered a $2.5 million reward for information.
“Steve Hatfill demonstrated remarkable endurance throughout, suffering the stigma of being the sole face of the anthrax murders for six years, despite having no experience or scientific expertise into deadly biotoxins.”
The government knew that the public’s perception of the case has to change; they had to send a message to the American public that they are on the case.
In June, they asked Dr. Hatfill if they could search his apartment; he said yes.
The Department of Justice broadcast that search live, as agents entered his home dressed in hazmat suits, information leaked by the FBI in June of 2002. In August, they brought bloodhounds Tinkerbell, Knight and Lucy to the apartment; that was also leaked to the press and broadcast live.
The idea that bloodhounds could identify Hatfill’s scent is “utter nonsense,” Connolly said.
New York Times reporter Nicholas Kristof published six articles about Dr. Hatfill, thinly disguised as “Dr. Z.” He reported he failed a polygraph test and other accusations, all demonstrably false. Then U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft went on TV and called Dr. Hatfill a “person of interest,” a first for an attorney general.
That morning Dr. Hatfill had reported to a new job. Then the Department of Justice called his employer and said Hatfill must be fired.
So, Hatfill was now unemployed and unemployable.
He tried to fight back by holding a press conference, saying “I am a loyal American.”
This is when he called Connolly for help.
“He came to us in desperate straights. He was on the verge of being indicted. I asked others for their opinion. They said (with understatement), ‘You might want to take this case.’
“We took the case. This is what you go to law school for,” Connolly said.
“I did my due diligence. Reviewed the avalanche of leaks.”
He said that everything that didn’t fit was discarded by investigators. They followed him everywhere. He got a citation for “walking creating a hazard” when they ran over his foot. They searched a pond (fruitlessly), saying he had gotten rid of evidence there. Based on evidence that the letters were mailed from one mailbox, they showed his picture to people in the vicinity and asked if they had seen him. “Unreliable … one photo! Who in the world takes one photo and shows it around? Bias!”
Finally, we said, ‘We’re not taking this anymore.’ “So I took up 48 pages [he had written cataloging the case against him] and I said to myself: ‘They ‘p---ed off the wrong Irishman.’
“My team put together an 84-page complaint and sued the Justice Department. I told Hatfill – because I’m Nostradamus – ‘This is going nowhere.’ So, I now have the second civil lawsuit of my career!”
“Here’s what happens in a civil lawsuit. The governor comes in and tells the judge, you’ve got to issue a stay; there were no leaks, it’s all about money. The judge asks the FBI for a report in-camera.
“The FBI did something stupid; they said, ‘Look, this is what is in our secret report.’ I said, ‘Judge, even you can’t stop these guys.’
“The judge said to us, ‘Do what you’ve got to do.’ Thank God. It gave me the opportunity to put them under oath. I deposed everyone. Ashcroft said ‘I don’t know over 100 times during his deposition.’”
From the beginning, the FBI’s number one suspect, Steve Hatfill, had been declared a “person of interest” in one of the largest criminal investigations in history. It was a “campaign of leaking lies and distortions about him to the press.”
Even the D.C. FBI chief objected to naming Hatfill.
Then the attorney general confirmed it on television.
Connolly filed suit, claiming that the DOJ, FBI and Attorney General John Ashcroft had “violated his presumption of innocence and destroyed his reputation,” under the Federal Privacy Act.
The court tried to convince Connolly to send it to mediation.
“NO! We’re going to trial. We want to make it so it will never happen again. And I expect a letter of exoneration,” he insisted.
In 2008, seven years after the start of the investigation, Connolly and his team won, recovering $5.8 million for Dr. Hatfill from the government. Perhaps more importantly, they exonerated him of any involvement.
Connolly had also filed defamation suits against several periodicals and journalists in 2004.
“We did not sue those who had published leaked information (although we were concerned they were so credulous); we sued those who made things up!”
In 2007, they entered confidential settlements with Vanity Fair and Reader’s Digest. They did not prevail in their suit against Kristof and The New York Times because the judge found that Hatfill was a public figure.
Weeks after the 2008 lawsuit victory, the government was on the verge of arresting Dr. Bruce E. Ivans, a consultant to the FBI in the investigation, when he committed suicide. The facts never got fully scrutinized in court. The DOJ declared that “we got him.”
“I watched the press conference and sent a message to the head of the FBI: I want my effing exoneration letter!
“I received the least gracious exoneration letter ever … with no apology!”
He left the audience with one important lesson: “The two most important words that you must learn from law school are confirmation bias.
“How did the harm happen? Because each and every one of us is guilty of confirmation bias. But that’s the one thing we can check for. How did The New York Times get it so wrong? You have to be able to look for it. It’s easy enough to challenge it; challenge what you know to be true TWICE.
“Don’t ever believe anyone’s BS; particularly your own. … You’ve got to be able to look at cases from many different ways, not just from your own lens.”
In answer to some audience questions, he said, “I didn’t sleep very well. But as a trial lawyer, it’s not your job to feel pressure; it’s your job to apply it.”
He said that Steve Hatfill is now teaching battlefield medicine at George Washington University Medical Center. “The military special forces stood by him.”
As a last comment, he noted that “For the last several years, I have paid every cent of my taxes!”
Then, “Don’t be afraid. Take your skills and go fight for people!”