Infectious diseases expert sentenced to prison and finedBMJ 2004; 328 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.328.7441.662-d (Published 18 March 2004) Cite this as: BMJ 2004;328:662
Dr Thomas Butler, an expert on plague who was convicted on 47 of 69 charges involving missing vials of plague bacteria, was sentenced last week in Texas to two years in federal prison. He was fined $15 000 (£8300; €12 200) and must pay restitution of $38 675 to Texas Tech University in Lubbock, where he was formerly professor of medicine and head of the infectious diseases division.
The case began in January 2003, when Dr Butler told his laboratory safety officer that 30 vials of plague bacteria from a project in Tanzania were missing. A terrorism alert followed, drawing national attention. FBI agents arrested him. He said the vials were missing because he had inadvertently destroyed them (BMJ 2003;327:699). Later he changed his mind and said he didn't know what had happened to them.
Dr Butler received support from the National Academy of Sciences, the Institutes of Medicine, the New York Academy of Sciences, the Infectious Diseases Society of America, five Nobel laureates, and eminent colleagues. The Federation of American Scientists set up a website and sought donations for his legal defence (www.fas.org/butler/index.html).
The head of the defence fund, Daniel Schwartz, a lawyer from Washington, DC, said he was not aware of any similar cases against scientists.
In December Dr Butler was convicted of some of the charges but acquitted of the most serious ones. However, he was convicted of defrauding Texas Tech University in connection with drug trials for pharmaceutical companies (BMJ 2003;327:1307).
He resigned from the university, repaid it $250 000 relating to the drug trials, and gave up his Texan medical licence, which as a convicted felon he could not hold (BMJ 2004;328:364).
The Associated Press reported that Dr Butler told the judge, “I'm deeply sorry this whole thing happened. At no time did I intend to break laws and mislead anyone. My reputation was destroyed, I lost my tenured position, and I lost my medical licence. During my whole career, I've worked to help people.” He asked that he be granted probation.
District Judge Sam Cummings, known as “Maximum Sam” for his tough sentences, did not give Dr Butler the longest possible term. Dr Butler is due to begin his sentence on 14 April.
Mr Schwartz said that Dr Butler's legal team had not decided whether to appeal, which it must do by 24 March. Either side can appeal, and an appeal might be denied or might lead to a more severe sentence.
The journal Science has an online log of the trial at http://sciencenow.sciencemag.org/feature/data/butlertrialprevious.shtml
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