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SCIENTIFIC COMMUNITY: The Trials of Thomas Butler

December 19, 2003


Thomas Butler was a sought-after plague expert, with a clinical trial in Tanzania that promised important results for biodefense. Then he was charged with mishandling plague samples and lying to the FBI. This month, a jury convicted him of financial wrongdoing. Who is Thomas Butler, and what lessons do his trials hold?

After three visits to Tanzania, Butler was on the verge of becoming perhaps the United States' hottest plague scientist. The work would confirm his reputation as a can-do researcher known for getting results under even the most primitive conditions. Other scientists were increasingly interested in his efforts, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was practically begging him to apply for a $700,000 research grant...

Yet, as he stared at other jets taxiing on the tarmac on the morning of 14 April 2002, the veteran clinician also mulled some potential problems, he noted in his journal. Among them were the "challenges of getting organisms back" into the United States. The rules had tightened drastically since Butler had last encountered plague in Brazil in the late 1970s. A British colleague had even warned him "that in the U.K. you can be arrested for bringing in pathogens." Butler would soon learn that U.S. authorities could be just as aggressive as their British counterparts. On 15 January, 2 days after reporting that 30 vials of plague bacteria were missing from his lab, Butler was shackled and thrown into a Lubbock jail, charged with lying to federal agents about the fate of the vials and illegally importing the Tanzanian samples into the country. At that moment, "my stomach froze in my chest," Butler said later. Seven months after his arrest, the government indicted Butler on 69 charges. In addition to allegations that he had mishandled the plague samples, prosecutors accused him of defrauding his university of clinical trial fees and cheating on his taxes. Butler's prosecution became a cause célèbre for those who felt that the government was using him to scare scientists into obeying strict new bioterror-prevention laws. They urged the government to drop the case, predicting that it would drive researchers out of biodefense research and undermine national security. But on 1 December, a jury convicted Butler on 47 counts. He faces up to 240 years in jail and millions of dollars in fines...

Prosecutors heaped scorn on Butler's claim that he didn't understand the pathogen-transport rules. His journal entry about the "challenges" of importing samples showed that he knew enough to know better, they argued, as did his downloading of the rules from CDC's Web site. Butler's hand transport was also reckless, they claimed. Plague is "in its own way as serious as the atomic bomb," argued prosecutor Michael Snipes, a master of hyperbole with the physique of a linebacker. One of the trial's most dramatic moments came when biosafety expert Barbara Johnson of Science Applications International Corp. easily crushed with one hand a plastic petri dish just like those that Butler had used to carry some plague cultures to USAMRIID. The dishes were a disaster waiting to happen, she warned.

Prosecutors raised another odd incident to undermine Butler's credibility. On the morning of 14 January, just hours before the investigation began, a colleague in Butler's department diagnosed the researcher with possible chronic fatigue syndrome. The physician then signed a letter, drafted by Butler, to the department administrator, recommending that Butler be granted medical leave. Butler might seek care "out of town," it said. Butler never mentioned the diagnosis to the FBI, and his defense didn't bring it up at the trial . . . That's because the letter was "an incredibly bogus, ridiculous diagnosis," prosecutor Snipes snapped in a withering final argument. He portrayed Butler as an arrogant liar who refused to take responsibility for his actions. Butler had everything, Snipes said: a successful career, international prestige, a nice family. "He blew it all," Snipes said. "Because he's greedy, he had to have all the money, and he simply wouldn't listen to anybody."

The defense team fired back. Why would Butler destroy his own career by bringing the investigators down on his head? And although he may not have had the proper paperwork, the veteran microbe hunter knew what he was doing when he transported his samples. "The world's leading expert is gonna put you in danger? He's gonna put himself in danger?" thundered Floyd Holder, the bald, baritone 69-year-old local legal legend who led Butler's defense. "Tom did what it took, and he did it as best as he could." And now, the government was punishing him for it.

After deliberating for 3 hours, they needed just 6 hours more to deliver their verdicts . . . In delivering its judgment, the jury steered a middle course between the Jekyll-and-Hyde portraits of Butler painted by the dueling attorneys. Most notably, it blew a gaping hole through the heart of the prosecution's original case by acquitting Butler of the most sensational charge: lying to the FBI about the fate of his samples. And it backed Butler's claim that he acted in good faith by acquitting him of lying to his university about possessing plague bacteria, of lying on his tax returns, and of 15 of the 18 charges related to transporting his samples. But the jurors clearly didn't buy Butler's explanation of the split contracts, convicting him on 44 of the 54 fraud counts. And it decided that he should have known he needed an export permit when he shipped plague cultures back to Tanzania in a FedEx carton marked "laboratory materials."...

The fraud verdicts have puzzled attorneys on both sides, however. That's because, in several instances, the jury convicted Butler of accepting one payment associated with a single contract but not a similar payment made a few weeks later. Similarly, it found him innocent of receiving certain payments but guilty of the attached mail fraud charge. "It's hard for us to understand," Meadows says. And Texas Tech law professor and former prosecutor Larry Cunningham says that the verdicts bear the hallmarks of a divided jury that split the difference to avoid a lengthy deliberation. On the other hand, he says that the contradictions are largely academic under criminal law: "Juries aren't required to be consistent."

Butler's supporters are delighted that he was acquitted of most of the charges that started the drama . . . Beyond Butler's close allies, however, reaction has been muted. Many have rejected the image of Butler as victim of a Justice Department run amok. Butler's case just isn't that simple, they say; it raises too many questions . . . Still, even after the exhaustive investigation and expensive prosecution, many remain perplexed. The weeks of testimony never solved the case's biggest mystery: What really happened to the plague bacteria that Butler says went missing that Saturday morning? The jury signaled that it believed Butler: He was manipulated by the FBI and has no idea where the plague cultures are. That brings the case full circle. Thirty vials of deadly microbes are still unaccounted for--and nobody is looking for them.