A group of physicians and scientists expressed their support for Dr. Thomas C. Butler, jailed in 2003 on charges related to the disappearance of 30 vials of plague bacteria, in the June 1, 2005 issue of Clinical Infectious Diseases. Butler's appeal will be heard on June 8.
Butler, a professor and chief of the infectious diseases division at Texas Tech University, reported the disappearance of vials of plague bacteria, a potential bioterrorism weapon, in January of 2003. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) officials questioned Butler, who had waived legal counsel, and he later signed a statement indicating that the vials may have been destroyed. Butler was accused of--and jailed for--lying to the FBI, a charge of which he was later acquitted. However, 69 additional charges were also filed, mostly unrelated to the loss of the plague vials. The additional charges, which included tax evasion, embezzlement and fraud, carried a maximum sentence of 469 years in prison and $17 million in fines.
A jury acquitted Butler of the majority of the initial charges, but he was convicted in connection with an overseas shipment of laboratory specimens to Tanzania, as well as on charges related to administration of and indirect costs derived from pharmaceutical grants. The convictions carried a corresponding 10-year sentence and $1 million fine. However, the judge, known for usually imposing the maximum penalties, made considerable downward departures in sentencing Butler to two years in prison and a payment of about $38,000, citing Butler's contribution to humanity in the form of medical treatment and research as reasons for the lessened penalty.
Numerous professional organizations, including the Infectious Diseases Society of America (IDSA), the Institute of Medicine, the National Academy of Sciences, the New York Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering and the European Society of Clinical Microbiology and Infectious Diseases, have expressed support for Butler. IDSA and many individual scientists and physicians also wrote letters of concern to then-Attorney General John Ashcroft regarding Butler's prosecution. IDSA's letter stated, in part, "Given his past outstanding contributions as well as the public facts surrounding his case, we are very concerned that Dr. Butler is being treated unfairly. No one was physically harmed by his mistakes, nor to the best of our knowledge is there any allegation of intent to harm."
"Support [for Dr. Butler] is widespread from those who know about the situation," said Barbara E. Murray, MD, of the University of Texas Medical School at Houston and lead author of the article. "Among those I talk to, all indicate they are supportive and concerned. This is especially so among those who know him personally or who have worked with him, because they view him as such an upstanding, honorable, hard working and dedicated physician and investigator."
Aside from concern for Butler as an individual, there is also "concern about the impact on others doing bioterrorism research" and the government's seemingly overzealous attempts to convict Butler on other counts once it became clear that he was not a bioterrorist, Murray said. "In today's world, with so many complicated rules and regulations...it suggests that if someone wanted to convict us for another reason, they well might be able to find some unintentional irregularities. We're not talking about Al Capone, after all," Murray said. "In addition to the piling on of unrelated charges, of a sort that often are dealt with at an institutional level, the failure of Texas Tech to support this valued faculty member also is very concerning." Murray's father, now deceased, was president of Texas Tech University prior to Butler's employment there.
Even two years of imprisonment seems too harsh, Murray said. If Butler should be sentenced to anything, "doing community service that uses his professional skills would have made better sense," she added.
"This is not a person who is after money or self-promotion," said Murray, adding that Butler "has truly dedicated his life to others, primarily the indigent in developing countries and our own."
Source: Infectious Diseases Society of America (IDSA)