These days, Brandon Mayfield’s days are pretty quiet.
“My life is pretty mundane, in a good way,” he says, “I do think that things are sort of normal, although I didn’t think they would get that way.”
Eleven years ago, after all, the Beaverton attorney was a national story, arrested for involvement in the massive Madrid train bombings after the FBI trumpeted a “100 percent match” between his fingerprint and one found on a plastic bag of detonators near the scene. Mayfield was arrested and held in downtown Portland for two weeks, until the Spanish police, who had always questioned the identification, reported the print definitively belonged to an Algerian living in Spain. Mayfield was released, charges were dropped, and eventually he received a $2 million settlement from the U.S. government.
Now, Mayfield and his daughter Sharia, a Georgetown University law student who also works in Sen. Ron Wyden’s office, have published “Improbable Cause: The War on Terror’s Assault on the Bill of Rights” (Divertir), an account of those two weeks and what they say about American surveillance policy. “Fear,” they write, “has led to the very thing the Constitution was to protect us against – erosion of our liberties when we need them the most.”
The book goes into the cell with a narrow view of the Willamette, where Mayfield, who had never been to Spain, contemplated his chances of execution; a small suburban home being blockaded by local and national reporters and satellite trucks (a family member agreed to make a short public statement if the reporters would stay off the lawn); and the family’s dawning realization that the feds, with new Patriot Act powers, had been in their home and office, photographing and then seizing materials and tapping phones.
“Improbable Cause” revisits why the feds went all in on a single fingerprint link later shown to have been dubious from the beginning: Their quick check showed Mayfield to be a Muslim, to have advertised his law practice in a Muslim Yellow Pages, to have represented someone involved in a different terror case in a child custody issue. “One of the examiners candidly admitted,” said the report of the Department of Justice’s inspector general, “that if the person identified had been someone without these characteristics … the laboratory might have revisited the identification with more skepticism and caught the error.”
Without the Spanish police, Mayfield still figures, things might have turned out differently. Part of the book’s proceeds will go to the Innocence Project, to get innocent people out of prison. Steven Wax, Mayfield’s federal public defender, now works there.
In his current mundane, normal life, Mayfield has an enduring lesson from the experience.
“You’re targeted as a Muslim American,” he says, “and nobody wants to admit that.”
Mayfield was speaking on the day when a New Hampshire questioner told Donald Trump, “We have a problem in this country. It’s called Muslims,” and after noting that the president was one, asked, “When can we get rid of them?” Trump, who may or may not have heard the entire question, said a lot of people were asking that. The same weekend, candidate Ben Carson said that no Muslim should be president.
“The difference between Trump and some of the others,” said Mayfield, “is at least he admits it.”
Attitudes toward Islam, he thinks, are the great exception in a country increasingly tolerant on LGBT issues, and widely apologetic for its treatment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.
Mayfield declares in the book, somewhat overheatedly, that America “has now surpassed even the fantastical oppressive dystopias of Kafka and Orwell.” Yet at a time when he had the resources to live anywhere, he never really considered moving. “I’m as American as you can get,” he says firmly, noting that America is still probably a better place to be Muslim than Europe, while “The global Muslim community is in a state of disrepair.”
In general, he admits, “This is a pretty good place to be. It’s just that my idealism is dissipated.”
As the subject of maybe the highest-profile fingerprint foul-up ever, he gets invited to speak to forensic organizations, including three months ago at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Washington. At such events, he’s treated like a celebrity, which he thinks is strange.
When he’s introduced to people these days, his name may be recognized.
“Usually they say, ‘I’m personally sorry.’ I hear that a lot. It’s odd that they say it; they didn’t do it.
“But it’s a sign of what’s right in this country
NOTE: This column appeared in The Oregonian, 9/23/15.