Plague Expert Cleared of Serious Charges in Bioterror Case
A Texas jury on Monday found one of the nation’s leading experts on plague guilty of multiple counts of embezzlement and fraud but acquitted him of lying to the FBI about the theft of plague samples from his Texas Tech University lab.
Federal authorities had charged Dr. Thomas Butler with 69 counts, including smuggling and mishandling plague specimens. He was convicted of 47 counts, nearly all related to charges that he embezzled university funds.
But on the more serious charges involving smuggling and mishandling plague samples, he was acquitted of all but three charges -- all related to the improper shipment of plague samples to a Tanzanian researcher.
“The entire controversy that led to this case was thrown out by the jury,” said his attorney, Jonathan Turley. “The Justice Department justified this massive investigation and massive prosecution based on plague charges and false statements that the jury rejected.”
Butler, 62, appeared to fight back tears as the verdicts were read after two days of deliberations. He declined to comment.
Butler will be sentenced within 45 days and will be under house arrest until then, Turley said, adding that his client intends to appeal the convictions.
Prosecutor Bob Webster told Associated Press that Butler’s misdeeds were troubling. “It remains a real tragedy that a researcher who had so much to give to this country could get so far off the track,” he said.
The charges stemmed from an investigation after Butler reported to police Jan. 14 that 30 vials of potentially deadly plague bacteria were missing.
The claim sparked a bioterrorism scare in Lubbock in January; President Bush was alerted and the FBI launched an investigation involving more than 60 agents.
Prosecutors portrayed Butler as a rogue scientist and a disgruntled employee. They argued that Butler lied about the missing specimens to distract university authorities from investigating him on possible research and financial irregularities.
Under intense interrogation, Butler signed a statement in January that he had destroyed the plague samples. In testimony, Butler said that he wrote the statement under duress -- pressured by the FBI to allay public fears about any dangers.
The disappearance of the vials remains a mystery, he said in court.
The government also argued that numerous cases of mishandling and improperly transporting plague samples represented a perilous naivete and sloppiness in adhering to safety rules crucial to national security after anthrax attacks in 2001.
Attorneys for Butler said his actions endangered no one and were largely innocent errors in complying with the confusing regulatory requirements for handling potentially dangerous microbes.
The defense lawyers also noted that Butler had been asked by the U.S. government to conduct research on the plague, and argued that he had acted consistently and responsibly during 30 years of research.
After a failed investigation to find the missing samples, the government was desperate to gain some kind of victory and piled on many unrelated charges, defense attorneys said.
Butler’s conviction for theft, embezzlement and fraud pertains to research contracts prosecutors said he had illegally negotiated with pharmaceutical companies.
Many American scientists have found the case chilling, and viewed the well-known plague expert as a victim of overreaction by the FBI.
Other scientists have cited the Butler case as one reason why they have declined to accept biodefense research work. They criticized the prosecution as overzealous given the raft of complex regulations intended to transform the relaxed atmosphere of university labs into secure biodefense facilities.
Leaders of the National Academies, the nation’s preeminent scientific society, warned in August that the Butler prosecution could quash initiative.
Turley said that calls of support from leading scientists began to arrive shortly after the verdict was announced.
Peter Agre, this year’s winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry and a former student of Butler’s, called the verdict “a victory in the sense that Tom Butler is an honorable scientist doing his research for humanitarian reasons.”
“But the damage has already been done,” Agre said. “I know, personally, of distinguished investigators who have incinerated their samples of plague” to avoid accidentally running afoul of what they view as onerous or confusing rules.
Times wire services contributed to this report.