What the Framing of a Terror Suspect Says About GOP Attacks on Due Process

Paul Kevin Curtis was falsely accused in the ricin plot -- and the legal requirement to bring him before a judge helped set him free.

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Federal officials stand outside the house of Paul Kevin Curtis while searching for evidence in Corinth, Mississippi, on April 18, 2013. (Reuters)

When Paul Kevin Curtis was arrested by the FBI and accused of sending letters laced with the poison ricin to President Obama, he wasn't wearing a special uniform that identified him as a terrorist.

But not because terrorists don't wear uniforms. "What looked at first like classic terrorism -- poisoned letters sent to the president and other public officials -- now seems more likely to be the product of a local feud," USA Today reports. "In the past week, the FBI has arrested Kevin Curtis, released him, and then, on Saturday, arrested his online sparring partner, Everett Dutschke."

Dutschke is charged with "knowingly developing, producing, stockpiling, transferring, acquiring, retaining and possessing a biological agent, toxin and delivery system, for use as a weapon, to wit: ricin." The FBI now says Dutschke framed Curtis, the man that they originally arrested.

Do they finally have it right? Time will tell. (Dutschke denies any wrongdoing.) Meanwhile, alarming details have emerged about the FBI's treatment of their first suspect:

After keeping Elvis impersonator Paul Kevin Curtis in jail for a week, interrogating him while he was chained to a chair and turning his house upside down, federal authorities had no confession or physical evidence tying him to the ricin-laced letters sent to President Obama and other public officials. Investigators already had another man in their sights and, according to an FBI affidavit, were collecting physical evidence against this second suspect. But instead of setting Curtis free, court records show, federal officials sought to keep him in custody. First, three days after the arrest, prosecutors asked for a psychiatric evaluation -- a request usually made by defense lawyers. That could have extended his stay in federal prison by several months and allowed investigators to continue to question him.

Then, after a judge denied the request, federal prosecutors filed a motion seeking to postpone a court hearing at which they would be required to reveal the evidence they had against Curtis. That motion was also turned down. "They wanted to keep Mr. Curtis in custody while they built a case," said Hal Neilson, a former FBI agent who is Curtis's attorney. "They knew early on he wasn't the right guy, but they fought to hold on to him anyway."

For years now, War on Terrorism hawks have been arguing that terrorists -- by which they mean people accused of terrorism -- don't identify themselves like traditional enemies; and that it's foolish to read them their rights, to bring them before a judge, to require that evidence be presented to justify holding them, or to interfere with the judgment calls the executive branch makes in war time. Insofar as I know, the folks who make those arguments didn't call for Paul Kevin Curtis in particular to get the enemy-combatant treatment. That's to their credit. But would things have been different if his name was Abbas Hussein Mohammed? Or if a federal official had actually been hospitalized or killed by one of the ricin laced letters? Or if the frame-up had included the threat of more ricin imminently targeting unspecified officials in the U.S. government?

This case is a reminder that being accused of a heinous act, like sending a poison-laced letter to the president, does not mean that the accused is guilty. It is an eye-opening look at an FBI apparently willing to continue holding a man it had good reason to believe innocent. And it is a demonstration of why our system requires appearing before a judge, with evidence, to hold a suspect: to protect innocents from being imprisoned, and to ensure that the real bad guys are found.