The Wrongful Conviction of Alfred Trenkler
The ATF has a database called EXIS (Explosive Incident System) which is a computer program written with the express purpose to generate investigative leads from explosive and arson incidents. EXIS gathers information from reports voluntarily submitted from state and local police, fire departments, ATF and FBI. Since the sources and the chain of custody of these reports are not required to be identified or verified for accuracy or completeness the results are never permitted in court. However, the government used the EXIS database at Alfred's trial posing it as infallible, scientific evidence to establish a "signature" between the 1991 bomb and the 1986 firecracker. The "signature" of a bomb is a uniqueness of components or techniques that a bomb maker uses in crafting his bombs that are specific to him and because of these individualistic components or techniques a comparison can be made to determine if bombs have the same maker. As an indication of the prejudicial and unreliable content that EXIS contains the only time in history that it has been used at trial was Alfred's.
Some of the main issues with EXIS is that the data is from voluntarily submitted reports. There are no standardized forms or mandate that requires all explosive or arson incidents be included. Essentially the content of the database is at the discretion of the data that is chosen to be sent in and then chosen to be entered in. The forms submitted are not done so under oath and do not have to be signed. The reports do not have to be verified. There is no requirement that the investigation has to be complete before the data can be entered and it does not have to be supplemented if information changes. Lastly, information can be added or removed from EXIS at anytime.
The 1986 firecracker incident was originally never entered into the EXIS database. Quincy police officer Thomas Tierney submitted his own personal file to the BPD in 1992. There was no record of the prank on file because it has been expunged. In fact, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts took the unusual step of expunging the entire incident, an act that Massachusetts reserved for events that should never have been prosecuted in the first place. Only after Alfred's pager number was found in Shay Jr.'s possession was it suddenly of interest. A year after the firecracker incident since he had no criminal record, Alfred was granted security clearance from the NSA, CIA and FBI to enter high tech companies that were working on top secret government projects. However, five years later the firecracker prank was used to set the stage to show Alfred's experienced criminal mind. Either the firecracker event was criminal or it wasn't, the government can't have it both ways.
Stephen Scheid, the operator of EXIS that testified at Alfred's trial claimed that out of 40,867 incidents contained in the database from January 1979 to December 1991, there was enough of a similarity between the 1991 bomb and the 1986 firecracker for the computer to identify the same signature. Scheid went on to testify that he would enter in parameters to help narrow the field of possible bomb makers.
- Of the 40,867 incidents only 14,252 of those were bombings or attempted bombings.
- Of that 14,252 only 2,504 involved a vehicle.
- Of those 2,504 only 428 had a device placed under a vehicle.
- Of those 428 only 19 used a remote control.
- Of those 19 only 7 involved magnets.
- Of those 7 only 1 had an association with the intended target's son.
Taken at face value this computer evidence is quite compelling. One of the major problems with this scientific evidence is that Scheid admits to manually manipulating the queries he entered to create a link between the 1986 firecracker and the 1991 bomb. The parameters that were entered into EXIS were not specifically chosen based on bomb components thought to be key elements in determining signature but instead by Stephen Scheid based on information that he deemed important or perhaps more accurately, information that would provide the desired outcome (linking the firecracker and the bomb). Unique and distinct information could have been queried to help narrow down the suspect pool but the government was more concerned about creating a match rather than investigating all leads and finding a real match. The database was able to determine the difference between a truck and a car. If instead of entering vehicles and Scheid used specifics the 1986 prank would not have been identified since it had been a truck not a car. If instead of entering remote control he used wooden box the 1986 prank would not have been linked. Since there was no official police report or even debris from the 1986 firecracker Scheid had to base his information off the personal copy from Tierney. One of the parameters that he claims linked the 1986 and 1991 incidents was that the device was placed under a vehicle. However, the 1986 firecracker was never placed under the truck and Tierney's report never stated that it was. Surely the government was well aware of the placement of the firecracker, it was supposedly the main reason that Alfred was a suspect in the first place. The firecracker was attached to the side of the truck and for that matter the 1991 device was found in a driveway not attached to the underside of a car. If this information was accidentally omitted or altered what other information was adjusted to fit the prosecution's case?
Stephen Scheid was allowed to testify that the 2 devices contained the same signature based on 5 similarities, duct tape, solder, AA batteries, toggle switch and magnets. He did acknowledge on cross-examination that there were 18 differences between the 1986 firecracker and the 1991 bomb. One major distinction was something that may have been completely disregarded. The 1991 device was a bomb. It contained dynamite. It was built to cause harm and destruction. The 1986 device was a firecracker and contained no dynamite. It was built as a childish prank that caused no harm or destruction. Scheid admitted that his initial entry of the 1986 incident in the EXIS database did not generate a match to the 1991 bomb and that he had to manipulate the information provided to him in order to obtain a match by breaking it down to generic attributes. Scheid further admitted that the 1986 information was entered in 1992 with the sole purpose of generating a match to the 1991 device. EXIS could distinguish between cars and trucks, under vehicle, remote control, magnets, round magnets, solder, toggle, duct tape, AA batteries, 9 volt batteries, electric blasting caps, slide switch, box, wood, explosive no but dynamite yes, battery snap connectors etc. but only a few selective parameters were chosen. Scheid admitted during cross examination that there were 21 similarities between the 1991 bomb and an attempted bombing in New York in 1980. There were only 5 generic similarities between the firecracker and the bomb yet the ATF were convinced Alfred was the perpetrator and so those 5 similarities were sold to the jury as concrete proof of Alfred's guilt.
The court used this flawed EXIS information to bolster it's decision to allow the government's use of the 1986 "signature" evidence at Alfred's trial, going against all the reasons the the same judge used to bar its use in co-defendant Shay Jr.'s trial.
The First Circuit Court of Appeals had agreed with Alfred that the EXIS database should never have been allowed at his trial, or at any trial, but it was deemed harmless by the majority in light of the "Lindholm" testimony. That same testimony that was purchased for waiving a $100,000 fine and 55 month reduced prison term.