WASHINGTON – For the defense team, trotting a client like Dr. Steven J. Hatfill before the media makes little sense as a legal strategy. Instead, he is appealing to the court of public opinion, lawyers said.
Calling himself "the currently designated fall guy," Hatfill told a crowd of reporters Sunday that he had nothing to do with last fall's fatal anthrax attacks, has never worked with the deadly bacteria and is being smeared by the FBI.
"I can understand he motivation to respond, because right now there isn't someone who's ... saying, 'By the way, they haven't found anything,'" said Cynthia Orr, a defense lawyer in San Antonio and co-chair of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers' public affairs committee. "The headline is, 'FBI searches home.'"
Federal investigators call the former Army bioweapons researcher a "person of interest" in the anthrax case, but have not called him a suspect.
Hatfill has not been charged with a crime and investigators say he is only one of numerous people they have questioned. Still, his is the only name to become public and his apparently the only home the FBI searched twice. His car and a storage locker were also searched, Hatfill said.
Hatfill has also taken taken a lie detector test, which he said he passed. He was fired from one job since and suspended from another in the months the FBI has investigated him.
"If I am a subject of interest, I'm also a human being. I have a life. I have, or I had, a job. I need to earn a living. I have a family, and until recently, I had a reputation, a career and a bright professional future," Hatfill said Sunday as his lawyer stood by.
Such a personal appeal may generate sympathy for Hatfill among the public at large, and may cause investigators, prosecutors and reporters to tread more carefully, lawyers said.
The government could use Hatfill's own words against him if he ends up in court, however, and his detailed account of how he cooperated with the FBI investigation may cut off some potential defense strategies down the road, lawyers said.
Publicly declaring his innocence and detailing his treatment by the FBI is a strategy "that would probably cause any criminal lawyer to have a fit," Hatfill lawyer Victor Glasberg told reporters.
Glasberg is not a criminal lawyer, although Hatfill has hired one.
"I told him that he would have to be not merely crazy but stupid to [go public] if there was the slightest possibility that he was facing any kind of liability in relation to the anthrax matters," Glasberg said. "He said, 'I want to do it."'
George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley said if government agents had a good case against Hatfill, they would have arrested him by now. The government is probably hoping that by applying pressure, Hatfill will say or do something to revive a stalled investigation, he said.
Hatfill is attempting to turn the tables and put the FBI and other agencies involved in the investigation on the defensive, lawyers said.
Hatfill's allegations that investigators leaked damaging information about him and alerted the media to a raid at his house echo the treatment of Richard Jewell, who was exonerated as a suspect in the 1996 Olympic Park bombing in Atlanta.
If true, the treatment Hatfill described would violate FBI procedures, said former FBI counterterrorism chief Buck Revell. He added that a large task force is working on the anthrax mailings, which killed five people, and leaks could have come from many places.
"Given the degree of scrutiny he's gotten in the media and the fact that he's lost two jobs, he really didn't have anything to lose, and he may have a pretty good story to tell," Revell said.