Thomas Butler convicted

Texas Tech professor found not guilty of smuggling plague samples, but guilty of fraud and improper shipping

Dec 2, 2003
John Dudley Miller(

A Texas jury returned a split decision Monday (December 1) in the case of Texas Tech Professor Thomas Butler, acquitting him of smuggling plague samples and lying to the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) about them but convicting him of fraud and improperly shipping samples.

Altogether, Butler was convicted of 47 of 69 charges filed against him, most of which were added on months after the original charges filed in January. Those were filed after Butler reported 30 vials of plague missing from his laboratory but then signed a confession—he says under duress—that he had destroyed them earlier.

According to one of Butler's lawyers, Jonathan Turley, those added-on charges mainly involved contractual disputes Butler had with Texas Tech over payments two pharmaceutical companies made to him for conducting other research not related to plague. The government argued that in one case, Butler defrauded Texas Tech by taking half the fee that would otherwise have gone to Texas Tech. Butler's lawyers claimed that those payments were for consulting and that his contract with the university did not forbid them. The jury acquitted him of evading taxes on those payments.

“The government criminalized the contractual dispute he had with the university,” Turley told The Scientist. Turley, who is a professor of law at George Washington University, said that such disputes are common, that they are traditionally handled in negotiations, and that he had never seen a case result in an indictment.

“There was no administrative process to resolve those differences,” Turley said. “That should send a disturbing and chilling message to all academics.”

Turley made much of the jury's decision to acquit Butler on all of the original charges of smuggling and lying. “By acquitting him… the jury specifically rejected the testimony of over half a dozen FBI agents,” he said. “It is highly disturbing to see all of these original charges rejected after this massive prosecution,” which brought 60 FBI agents to the Texas Tech campus January 14.

Turley said that Butler's legal team would appeal the 47 convictions. “We believe we have a strong appeal,” he said, “and we intend to pursue this appeal vigorously in New Orleans, in the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.”

One issue will be the denial of the defense's motion to move the trial out of Lubbock, where Texas Tech is located. “We argued it was impossible to try this case in Lubbock because of the tremendous influence of Texas Tech, which is the largest employer and most revered institution in this small city.” The team may appeal on several other issues as well, he said, but no decisions have been made about which ones.

Scientists had rallied behind Butler, charging that the government's handling of the investigation was heavy-handed.