Infectious disease expert is indicted on 69 charges

BMJ 2003; 327 doi: (Published 25 September 2003) Cite this as: BMJ 2003;327:699
  1. Janice Hopkins Tanne
  1. New York

    Three major US science organisations–the National Academy of Sciences, the Institute of Medicine, and the New York Academy of Sciences–have written to John Ashcroft, attorney general and head of the Justice Department, protesting against the arrest and prosecution of Thomas Campbell Butler for the illegal transportation of hazardous materials and other offences. The case centres on the disappearance of 30 vials of plague bacteria.

    The prosecution of Dr Butler “raises extremely serious concerns not only of individual rights but also for the scientific community generally,” the New York Academy wrote to the attorney general last week. It continued: “Our Government… needs the research, the knowledge, and the cooperation of the scientific community.”

    Last month the presidents of the National Academy of Sciences and the Institute of Medicine wrote to the attorney general: “We are particularly concerned about the impact that Dr Butler's case may have on other scientists who may be discouraged from embarking on or continuing crucial bioterrorism-related scientific research.”

    Dr Butler, 62, is professor of medicine, an expert on plague, and head of the infectious disease division at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center in Lubbock, Texas. He will be tried this autumn on 69 charges of illegal importation, smuggling, exportation, and transportation of hazardous materials; making false statements to federal agents; filing a false tax return; and theft, embezzlement, and fraud related to grants.

    Facing penalties of 74 years in prison and fines of $3.6m (£2.2m; €3.1m), he has pleaded not guilty to all charges. The university has recommended firing him.

    Some scientists working in the same field are sympathetic to Dr Butler, however, because they feel he has been the victim of a tightening of rules since the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001. In the past, scientists sometimes carried infectious material with them, well sealed, but without elaborate paperwork. Now, researchers need more permits and more detailed paperwork than in the past.

    In January Dr Butler told his laboratory safety officer and campus police that 30 vials containing plague bacteria were missing. A terrorism alert caught the attention of the White House, head of homeland security Tom Ridge, and the FBI. Agents swarmed in and arrested Dr Butler.

    According to the Scientist and other publications Dr Butler was questioned for 10 hours overnight and for several hours the next day without a lawyer. The criminal complaint by the FBI against Dr Butler says that he admitted to the authorities that he told the laboratory safety officer the vials were missing because he could not account for their whereabouts and did not want to admit that he had inadvertently destroyed them.

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