COMMENTS: Anthrax Prosecution Case Against Dead Scientist

The posthumous prosecution case against Bruce Ivins was Story of the Day, leading both ABC's and NBC's newscast. Ivins was a civilian microbiologist at the Pentagon's germ warfare base at Fort Detrick. He was an expert in the anthrax vaccine and had become the FBI's chief suspect in the five anthrax murders committed in the fall of 2001 by sending spores anonymously through the mails. Ivins killed himself last week, so the coverage largely consisted of the best case the feds could make against him--with the defendant unable to speak for himself. Only ABC balanced coverage of the prosecution press conference with an outline of its hypothetical rebuttal. NBC anchor Brian Williams was en route to Beijing for the Olympic Games so its newscast had Amy Robach as his substitute. CBS chose to lead with its in-house Campaign '08 coverage: the network's poll, conducted with The New York Times, measured Barack Obama with a 45%-39% lead over John McCain.

Ivins' former lawyers, according to ABC anchor Charles Gibson, characterized the FBI's case against the suicidal scientist as "heaps of innuendo" with evidence "contorted to create the illusion of guilt." So how did the networks' three justice correspondents--ABC's Pierre Thomas (no link), CBS' Bob Orr, NBC's Pete Williams--treat the FBI's case? All three zeroed in on two pieces of evidence: Ivins was in control of a flask of anthrax spores whose DNA was genetically identical to the spores in the mail; and he logged unusual extra hours in his laboratory in the days before the letters were mailed. Orr and Williams both pointed out that the FBI case was only circumstantial--although Orr called it a "strong circumstantial case." Orr, who spoke ill of the dead Ivins on Monday, appears to harbor an especial animus. He saw Ivins being portrayed as a "delusional sociopath" yet left that insult hanging without elaboration.

There certainly was innuendo in the feds' case, too. All three reporters recounted an e-mail Ivins sent to a friend in the days after the attacks of September 11th, 2001, characterizing Osama bin Laden as an anti-Semitic mass murderer. Please! If such sentiments qualified as evidence in a murder case, Ivins would have plenty of company on the FBI's list of suspects.

Jan Crawford Greenburg, ABC's legal correspondent, was the reporter who ventured what Ivins might have said in his own defense had this evidence come to trial. She pointed out that the admissibility of the FBI's vaunted genetic test of the anthrax DNA--her colleague Thomas called that the "lynchpin" of the feds' case--had never before been accepted in a court of law. The defense could "just poke holes all through this case."


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