Unabomber evidence in doubt

| Tue, 01/23/2007 - 05:24

A 49-year-old engineer under investigation in the hunt for Italy's 'Unabomber' won an important victory on Monday when a judge ordered a fresh examination of a crucial piece of evidence against him.

Elvo Zornitta, who has been probed in connection with the Unabomber's strikes since 2004, repeated his innocence and said that he hoped the judge's decision meant that "the worst is over".

At the centre of the tussle between investigators and Zornitta's lawyers is a pair of scissors found in his house. After tests, police said last year that marks on the scissors were compatible with traces left inside an explosive device attributed to the elusive bomber.

But the engineer's lawyers contested this finding and claimed the scissors had been tampered with after being found in Zornitta's home, apparently to make them incriminate him.

A preliminary hearings judge in Trieste examined the two conflicting accounts on Monday and ordered further forensic tests to be carried out.

Defence lawyer Maurizio Paniz appeared confident that the judge's decision signalled the collapse of the prosecutors' case against his client.

"Zornitta can relax," he said. "He is still a suspect but only in a formal sense".

Meanwhile, prosecutors revoked their nomination of Ezio Zernar, the police forensic expert who did the tests on the scissors for them.

Zernar is now under investigation by Venice prosecutors who suspect him of accidentally or deliberately tampering with the evidence.

The Unabomber is believed to be responsible for some 30 incidents involving booby-trapped objects in northeast Italy since 1994.

He has planted explosives in beach umbrellas, cigarette lighters, eggs and tubes of tomato concentrate and mayonnaise. Some of his devices - such as Easter eggs, felt-tipped pens and jars of chocolate spread - have clearly been aimed at harming children.

In April 2003, he was blamed for a booby-trapped pen which exploded in the hands of a nine-year-old girl who was out on a picnic with her family. The girl lost three fingers on her right hand and was blinded in her right eye.

A special pool of investigators was subsequently created to track down the serial bomber.

Zornitta's name first appeared in the media in connection with the bombings in August 2006 after the fact that he was being investigated was leaked from the prosecutor's office.

Speaking to the press on Monday, Zornitta said he felt "tired and nauseated" after seeing his name linked to the bombings for five months. He also said that if he discovered the identity of the Unabomber, he would "strangle him".

The Italian bomber was dubbed 'Unabomber' after America's notorious Theodore Kaczynski who was jailed for life in 1998 after a 17-year mail-bomb campaign which killed three people and injured 29.