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An appeals court panel has refused to consider damages for an Alabama man who was mistakenly linked by the FBI to the murder of a federal judge. The ruling by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals lightly criticized the behavior of law enforcement authorities, but said their actions, while causing massive stress, did not warrant restitution. The panel on June 11 rejected Alabama junk dealer Robert Wayne O’Ferrell’s appeal, affirming a federal judge in Alabama who threw out O’Ferrell’s claims against the federal government. O’Ferrell v. U.S., No. 99-6071 (11th Cir. June 11, 2001). O’Ferrell had sought $50 million in damages and an apology from the FBI. Still, the panel noted pointedly that, “In one respect the current official attitude of the United States towards [O'Ferrell and his wife, Mary Anne] — persons who apparently were innocently enmeshed in tragic events that took place many years ago — is rather more dismissive than seems appropriate.” O’Ferrell’s attorney, William Gill of Montgomery, Ala., did not return a call for comment. O’Ferrell, a part-time preacher, was identified as a suspect in two murders because the typed addresses on the packaging holding the bombs sent to the victims matched typed appeals he earlier sent to the 11th Circuit in an unrelated case that involved a dispute with Gulf Life Insurance Co. O’Ferrell, who had acted as his own attorney, lost the appeal. Judge Robert S. Vance of the 11th Circuit was killed and his wife seriously injured after a package bomb exploded at their home in the Birmingham, Ala., suburb of Mountain Brook, on Dec. 16, 1989. Two days later, a second bomb killed Savannah attorney Robert E. Robinson. That same day, federal law enforcement agents intercepted a third bomb at the Court of Appeals in Atlanta. The following day, a fourth bomb was intercepted at the Jacksonville, Fla., office of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Several 11th Circuit judges in Atlanta also received death threats. Dozens of federal agents swarmed into tiny New Brockton, Ala., in January 1990, where they searched O’Ferrell’s home and junk store, dug up his septic tank, searched the homes of relatives, and even confiscated O’Ferrell’s Bible. The FBI continued investigating O’Ferrell for months, and his name was circulated widely in national news accounts as a suspect. Agents later learned that Walter Leroy Moody had purchased a typewriter from O’Ferrell’s junk store — the same typewriter O’Ferrell had used to type his appeal. Nine months after they were targeted as suspects, the O’Ferrells were notified by federal authorities that they had been cleared. Moody subsequently was convicted and sentenced to death for the murders. The O’Ferrells, the panel noted, “were targets of an intensive federal investigation which sought to determine their culpability with respect to an horrendous group of crimes.” The panel said that there can be “little doubt that, during the months in which they were prime suspects and every phase of their life together was subjected to unremitting scrutiny and routine disruption, the stresses [the O'Ferrells] weathered [were] massive. However, those stresses did not constitute legally cognizable harm.” The judicial panel included 11th Circuit Judges Rosemary Barkett and Frank M. Hull and federal Judge Louis H. Pollak of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.

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