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Police try new label: 'person of interest'

By Associated Press,
© St. Petersburg Times
published May 18, 2003

WASHINGTON - Billboards in Louisiana where a serial killer is loose display the image of a grim-faced man with bushy eyebrows, and the title "person of interest." When Maryland police discovered three bodies last month, they put out an alert for a "person of interest" - the suspected shooter.

"Person of interest" has no legal basis, but it has become a new part of American law enforcement vernacular.

More vague than suspect or target, person of interest can apply to anyone who might have knowledge that police want. Critics complain it is a subtle way of calling someone a suspect, and authorities acknowledge the distinction is hard for people to make.

While not in law books or law enforcement manuals, the expression has popped up ever since Attorney General John Ashcroft used it last year to refer to Steven Hatfill, an ex-Army scientist, in the anthrax-by-mail case. Hatfill, who has not been charged, denies any involvement in the unsolved attacks and says Ashcroft's characterization of him has destroyed his life.

The term now can be found nearly every week in newspaper headlines and heard in police news conferences.

"It seems like it's becoming part of the legal lexicon," said Jonathan Shapiro, an Alexandria, Va., attorney who represented Hatfill. "It's a way for the Justice Department to tiptoe around the fact they're crushing someone, ruining their lives, and not get sued by it."

Bradford Berenson, a Washington attorney now in private practice after two years as a White House lawyer, said it is a catchall phrase to describe nonsuspects.

"They're saying, "We're worried about this person, we're suspicious of this person, but we don't have any hard evidence that they've done anything wrong,"' Berenson said. "It's almost the equivalent of saying "potential suspect."'

He said the term may be more widely used, especially in terrorism cases.

Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, demanded an explanation after the expression's debut. An assistant attorney general responded in a letter that person of interest was used by unidentified FBI sources in response to speculation that Hatfill might be a suspect in the anthrax mailings that killed five people in 2001. The lawyer said it is a commonly understood term for someone who is not a suspect.

But FBI spokesman Bill Carter said it is not an FBI term and is not used by agents to classify people under investigation.

Grassley said at the time that the phrase was unprecedented and not supported by formal policy or evidentiary standard.

It is so obscure that it shields law enforcement from lawsuits such as those filed by exonerated 1996 Olympic bombing suspect Richard Jewell. He was investigated by the FBI after he spotted the backpack that held a bomb that exploded in Atlanta.

Lawrence Goldman, a New York City attorney and president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said that by saying "He's just a person of interest, wink wink," police are shielded from embarrassment if they end up arresting someone else.

Richard Uviller, a Columbia Law School professor and former prosecutor and Justice Department lawyer, said the term is not necessarily bad.

"It seems to me we really need a term to describe a person who might turn out to be a witness and might turn out to be a suspect, but at this stage is only thought to be a person who knows something," Uviller said.

In Baton Rouge, La., Cpl. Mary Ann Godawa said the billboards have not brought forward a man seen in the vicinity of one of five murders linked to the serial killer. But it has stirred up speculation that he is the murderer, she said.

"We said person of interest. Everyone else heard suspect."

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