The US Justice department on Friday agreed to pay more than $5.8 million to Steven Hatfill, a former a former army scientist, who was once branded a "person of interest" in the deadly anthrax attacks of 2001.
The anthrax attacks, also known as Amerithrax
from its FBI case name, occurred over the course of several weeks beginning on September 18, 2001. Letters containing anthrax spores were mailed to several news media offices and two Democratic U.S. Senators, killing five people and infecting 17 others. The crime remains unsolved.
Less than a year after the first anthrax mailing, in September 2001, Hatfill was publicly named a person of interest. "He is a person that the FBI has been interested in," said then-Attorney General John Ashcroft at a press conference in August 2002.
As the investigation wore on, Hatfill was considered such a likely suspect that his home was searched -- twice -- as was his girlfriend's apartment.
FBI agents and Justice Department officials leaked key details about the case to willing reporters, according to depositions provided in Hatfill's civil suit. The FBI kept the pressure on Hatfill by conspicuously tailing him in public, with one agent in an unmarked car once running over his foot.
Hatfill insisted from the beginning that he had no involvement whatsoever. "I had nothing to do with the anthrax letters, and it is terribly wrong to contend or think otherwise," he said at the time. Now he seems to stand vindicated.
According to the settlement documents, the Justice department will pay Dr Hatfill $2.8m (Ģ1.4m) upfront.
It will also buy Dr Hatfill a $3m (Ģ1.5m) annuity that will pay him $150,000 (Ģ75,000) each year for 20 years.
The settlement signals the end of a civil lawsuit Hatfill brought against the Justice Department and FBI, accusing them of violating his privacy rights by improperly leaking sensitive information about the anthrax investigation to reporters.
About two years ago he sued the federal government, accusing officials of leaking false information about him and of telling prospective employers, including Louisiana State University, to fire him as an instructor teaching first responders how to handle unconventional attacks. He has said he was essentially unemployable for years, as a result of all the negative press attention.
"I think it's a gratifying end to a very sad chapter in [Hatfill's] life and that of the FBI and DOJ," said Hatfill's lawyer, Thomas Connolly, of the Harris, Wiltshire & Grannis law firm in Washington, D.C. "I'm hopeful that the settlement is punitive enough that they will learn their lesson" regarding the treatment of future suspects in high-profile criminal cases, he told NBC News.
The agreement states bravely that it "should not be construed as an admission of liability or fault on the part of" the FBI or Justice Department. But legal experts are sure to see the settlement as a serious black eye for the FBI, because it has the effect of clearing Hatfill of any involvement in the lethal, envelope-born attacks.
His lawyers lashed out at the government and the media.
"Our government failed us, not only by failing to catch the anthrax mailers but by seeking to conceal that failure," Hatfill's lawyers said in a statement. "Our government did this by leaking gossip, speculation, and misinformation to a handful of credulous reporters." They added: "As an innocent man, and as our fellow citizen, Steven Hatfill deserved far better."