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Thomas Butler, Physician- Scientist, prisoner
June 1, 2005 8:39 PM   Subscribe

Thomas Campbell Butler at 63 years of age, is completing the 1st year of a 2-year sentence in federal prison, following an investigation and trial that was initiated after he voluntarily reported that he believed vials containing _Yersinia pestis_ were missing from his laboratory at Texas Tech University.
posted by warbaby (30 comments total)

 
That story is absolutely fucking insane. It makes no sense at all.

How in the hell did it get so far and why hasn't his case gained national attention?
posted by mathowie at 8:51 PM on June 1, 2005


I vaguely recall reading about this back when he was on trial. I had no idea he was railroaded this bad, though. Jesus fucking Christ. I guess someone, somewhere wanted to make an example...
posted by neckro23 at 8:58 PM on June 1, 2005


Wow. Your government harasses and jails its scientists, while your public schools put religion into the science curriculum.

Where y'all thinking you're going with this, eh? Gonna end in tears, I tell ya.
posted by five fresh fish at 9:09 PM on June 1, 2005


To be utterly cynical, middle aged scientists convicted speciously and sentenced to two years in prison don't make for as exciting of a news cycle as lewd photos of Lynndie England and minute-by-minute details of the trial of a very odd pop star accused of child molestation. Seriously. Americans have too short of an attention span for the really important details to make the front page. We like our news black and white, stuff that can be summarized in two sentences and a couple shots from a photo op. And so we decend into a culture where this kind of persecution grows progressively more sinister, and remains mostly unnoticed.
posted by hansbleep at 9:10 PM on June 1, 2005


[Butler] has been stripped of his professorship, tenure, salary, and medical license and has spent his life savings and retirement to defend himself. He and his family have no sources of income.

What a tragic way to go out.
Note to self: do not move to West Texas.
posted by brheavy at 9:15 PM on June 1, 2005


hansbleep writes "We like our news black and white, stuff that can be summarized in two sentences and a couple shots from a photo op. And so we decend into a culture where this kind of persecution grows progressively more sinister, and remains mostly unnoticed."

Do we like it? Or is that all we get? I imagine that if this story was given enough attention the average American would have been interested. Two sentence summary: Scientist jailed. Government out of control. Photo op: Grandpa in a lab coat.
posted by underer at 9:27 PM on June 1, 2005


So why is that all we get? Are we being controlled by a sinister media/government co-conspiracy, or are we (you and I) just the exception to overwhelming general market forces?
posted by hansbleep at 9:35 PM on June 1, 2005


Note to self: Never talk to feds without presence of legal counsel.
posted by u2604ab at 9:38 PM on June 1, 2005


u2604ab: even better, if you are in a state with one-party consent just record all your conversations.
posted by tweak at 9:41 PM on June 1, 2005


Metafilter: Never talk to feds without presence of legal counsel.
posted by warbaby at 9:45 PM on June 1, 2005


I suggest several of you RTFA:

Media coverage has been extensive; Science, The Scientist, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Baltimore Sun, BBC, CBS, and many other news sources have run stories suggesting that Butler may have been a victim of the widespread fear about (bio)terrorism and may have been singled out, presumably to serve as an example, as part of a flawed strategy to fight bioterrorism.
posted by reflection at 9:47 PM on June 1, 2005


One of the most important lessons we gain from this that we should teach to our children, preferably at a young age, and repeat throughout their lives:

The police are not your friends. The police are not your friends.

This is just fucking crazy.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 9:47 PM on June 1, 2005


More info. See especially the two letters about the trial from Texas Tech geologist Tom Lehman.
Also heard [during the sentencing phase] was the most remarkable and eloquent testimony from Dr. William Greenough (Johns Hopkins University) who worked with Dr. Butler at the Center for Diarrheal Disease Research in Bangladesh. Did you know that Dr. Butler is credited with developing a treatment there for cholera (known as "oral rehydration therapy" - one of the first papers he wrote while working for them in Calcutta) that is currently credited by the World Health Organization for saving between 2 and 3 MILLION lives of children under four-years old EVERY YEAR?!! Apparently this is well known among doctors in the field, but I had never heard of this until Dr. Greenough spoke about it in the courtroom. He went on to explain about Dr. Butler's important contributions to treatment for typhoid fever, shigella, dysentery, and of course plague.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 10:01 PM on June 1, 2005


Would we call this the Alan Turing treatment?
posted by mullingitover at 11:41 PM on June 1, 2005


Poor man.

This is horrible
posted by flippant at 11:53 PM on June 1, 2005


Man, you guys just get wackier and wackier as the years roll by.

I do not envy your children.
posted by Jairus at 12:02 AM on June 2, 2005


This is the modern equivalent of a witch burning, the volatile product of crossing science with religious fundamentalists and the authorities who pander to them.

Is anyone truly shocked? Why would you be?
This gets repeated tens of thousands of times each year in this country, with people being sent away for life for drug conspiracies (you don't have to use drugs, possess or even sell drugs, you just have to be named by someone who does; they falsely implicate you in order to reduce their sentence, while the prosecutor gets a slam-dunk two-fer... well, actually, often a three, four, or five-fer).

This goes far beyond a mere lack of common sense. It's a hateful, national pathology driver by fear and unexamined self-righteousness.

We've become habituated to lies, hatred, injustices, and brutality such that the public reaction to lies about why we went to war, insinuations that judges should be killed, and images of Abu Ghraib barely register.

It was a great experiement while it lasted. But apparently it's too much trouble to bother. Gotta run, commercials are done.
posted by Davenhill at 12:12 AM on June 2, 2005


The full text of the article cited in the original link [with PDF and PS]. I think the article is free.

It reads like Kafka, ON STEROIDS!
posted by gsb at 12:58 AM on June 2, 2005


That'll teach him for talking about the potential for bioterrorism on U.S. soil. So, what *DID* happen to that anthrax investigation anyway?

I hear the Office of Homeland Security has developed a new method to protect yourself against domestic acts of bioterrorism:
1> Dig a hole in the ground.
2> Put your head in it.
3> Add dirt.
posted by insomnia_lj at 1:06 AM on June 2, 2005


And as a follow up... anyone remember this NY Times article from Dec. 22, 2001?

"U.S. Inquiry Tried, but Failed, to Link Iraq to Anthrax Attack"

... or how about this memo, from July of the following year?

---------

Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy.

The two broad US options were:

(a) Generated Start. A slow build-up of 250,000 US troops. . .
(b) Running Start. Use forces already in theatre . . .
initiated by an Iraqi casus belli.

----------


Hm.
posted by insomnia_lj at 1:33 AM on June 2, 2005


Bio-terrorism is a major threat.

So let's put our best researcher in jail. If we can't convict him for reporting a possible loss of infectious agents, pile on the charges and convict him for technical violations of arcane financial regulations.

Then prohibit him from ever working in his field ever again, as long as he lives.


(mathowie writes, "why hasn't his case gained national attention?"

I tried.)
posted by orthogonality at 2:23 AM on June 2, 2005


i have my doubts whether "cultural creatives" will leave or not come to the country because of laws about gay people ... but this kind of thing will send them running to the hills
posted by pyramid termite at 2:35 AM on June 2, 2005


(Sciencemag: subscription - summary is all that's available):
"Infectious-disease researcher Thomas Butler will be back in the headlines next month when a federal appeals court in New Orleans, Louisiana, hears his request to overturn his conviction for fraud and mishandling plague samples."
And from gsb's link:
"If you wish to assist his defense by providing expenses for his appeal, donations to the Thomas Butler Legal Defense Fund may be sent to Daniel C. Schwartz, c/o Bryan Cave LLP, 700 Thirteenth St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20005."
Crazy.
posted by peacay at 2:48 AM on June 2, 2005


from peacay's link:
"In August, Butler asked the appeals court to overturn the conviction or order a new trial. The move triggered a cross-appeal from prosecutors arguing that his reduced sentence violated federal sentencing guidelines (Science, 22 October 2004, p. 590). Fortunately for Butler, the U.S. Supreme Court in January declared that the sentencing guidelines are not mandatory. The decision, United States v. Booker, led the government to withdraw its cross-appeal, which was dismissed on 1 March. However, Butler could still receive a longer sentence if a new jury reaches different conclusions, notes Larry Cunningham, a Texas Tech law professor. "It's not a given that he would be entitled to a better sentence," he says."
posted by dhruva at 3:58 AM on June 2, 2005


Note to self: Never talk to feds without presence of legal counsel.

But I'm surrounded by feds. And I'm legal counsel. Am I covered?
posted by dreamsign at 5:15 AM on June 2, 2005


Don't talk to yourself if surrounded by feds.
posted by warbaby at 5:42 AM on June 2, 2005


And here's a different take from the Sunshine Project:
What has gone unreported in the Butler case is that Texas Tech's work with bioweapons is far from a little program at an ordinary state school in a flat and dusty corner of middle America. In fact, Butler worked in the midst of a large and secretive biodefense program supported by the US Army, a program that even many life scientists may not be aware of.
posted by warbaby at 5:53 AM on June 2, 2005


Better note to self: never speak to law enforcement officials of any kind without legal representation present.

They treat everyone they encounter as a perp, therefore we must treat every encouter with them as a dangerous exercise.
posted by Irontom at 6:32 AM on June 2, 2005


"Butler may have been a victim of the widespread fear about (bio)terrorism and may have been singled out, presumably to serve as an example, as part of a flawed strategy to fight bioterrorism."

This is what I don't get, an example of what? That if you should be unable to locate some vials of nasty to take whatever steps you can to cover it up to avoid being nailed to the wall? I hope all those guys with access to small pox are paying attention.

Civil_Disobedient writes "The police are not your friends. The police are not your friends."

Yep. The three rules of dealing with the police: Don't lie, don't volunteer, and if you've done _anything_ wrong or that the cops may think is wrong STFU. If you are seeking assurances you should be talking thru your laywer. It's the reason Ken Lay is walking around and Martha Stewart did time, Ken knows how to play it.

pyramid termite writes "i have my doubts whether 'cultural creatives' will leave or not come to the country because of laws about gay people ... but this kind of thing will send them running to the hills"
Why? Lots of gays fled Europe during the war to avoid being collected up. And on average the people able to leave those conditions are going to be the weathly, smart or creative.
posted by Mitheral at 11:05 AM on June 2, 2005


It's a good thing that article wasn't written with a particular bias. I'd hate to see the reaction around here if it stated things in a way calculated to sway the reader. You know, like dismissing a conviction as a "technical violation" (which is pretty much what all violations are). Or vague references to what the former dean said. Or insinuations that the university administration testified under pressure from DoD.

Folks, I'm ready to be as outraged as the next guy, but goddamn. I need a little more info before I start heating up the tar and feathers.
posted by forrest at 12:34 PM on June 2, 2005


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