Associated Retired Aviation Professionals

Springfield, MA

Appeal Filed in Flight 800 Shrapnel Lawsuit


Appeal filed in
Flight 800 shrapnel lawsuit.

On 5/27/05 an appeal was filed to the First Circuit Appeals Court in a freedom of information lawsuit against the FBI to obtain forensic details about the explosion in1996 of TWA Flight 800.
This appeal follows on a judgment in favor of the FBI issued in March by Federal Judge Michael Ponsor in Sephton V. FBI .  In the course of this 5 year legal battle to obtain certain forensic details, FBI documents have now been released that catalog scores of mysterious metal fragments and pellets discovered during the autopsies of the 230 victims.  According to the county coroner, the FBI took all such foreign objects for intensive lab analysis.

However the FBI claims it cannot find any of the forensic results of that analysis whatsoever.  Such shrapnel was potentially the most significant and explicit direct evidence about the explosion in the whole of the investigation.
In 2000 the NTSB concluded that the explosion was probably caused by the center fuel tank exploding, but they could find no explicit evidence of the cause.  The source of the explosion is still a mystery.

Supporters of this litigation contend that the never-released shrapnel analysis evidence is still worth examining because of what it might reveal about the nature of the explosion; either the metal fragments match the metal from the fuel tank and the residues confirm explosive fuel residues, or it indicate some other type of residue and source of explosion.

In a 28 page ruling Judge Ponsor determined that the FBI's search for the critical documents met the legal standards for an "adequate search." But he noted his "sharp disappointment" that in the final days of the lawsuit the FBI refused the judge's request for a sworn statement about the adequacy of the search.  The refusal gave the impression that the FBI was not confident that an adequate search had been performed.

Judge Ponsor also conceded that the performance of the FBI in the case overall had been very poor; refusals, delays, partial record releases and arbitrary reversals. 
Ultimately, if this becomes the new standard for an "adequate search" then the freedom of information laws and principles of government accountability and transparency will have been further eroded. It will be even easier for government agencies to conceal their mistakes.

Details about the litigation can be seen at:


  Robert E. Donaldson.  All rights reserved