ACADEMY ACCUSES US OVER PROSECUTION OF SCIENTIST



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Last Updated

20 Sep 2003

Source: Reuters, September 19, 2003

Academy accuses US over prosecution of scientist

WASHINGTON, Sept 19 (Reuters) - More scientists came to the defense on Friday of a Texas researcher charged with a range of crimes after he reported he lost some plague samples, accusing prosecutors of blowing the case out of proportion.

Dr. Thomas Butler, 62, a professor of medicine at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, pleaded not guilty earlier this month to a 69-count indictment.

The New York Academy of Sciences said it had written in protest to U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, joining the National Academy of Sciences in expressing fears that overzealous anti-terrorist efforts could stifle scientific inquiry.

"While technical violations may have occurred, Dr. Butler's colleagues are concerned that law enforcement officers appear to have blown the whole episode out of proportion to make an example of Dr. Butler and that the early local media coverage sensationalized the situation," said the letter from the Academy's Committee on the Human Rights of Scientists.

Butler admitted last January he was behind a scare that led to a widescale anti-terrorism investigation. He said he had accidentally destroyed 30 vials containing plague bacteria without filing the proper paperwork.

For about a day media reports suggested the vials were missing and perhaps stolen.

Butler was arrested on suspicion of making false statements to federal investigators and FBI agents said Butler had given them a written confession.

The FBI later said all the missing vials had been accounted for and the incident posed no danger to the public.

The New York Academy committee -- which is credited for helping pressure the former Soviet Union into releasing physicist Andrei Sakharov -- said Butler was being treated unfairly.

"We find extremely troublesome the "piling on" of "Theft," "Embezzlement," "Fraud," "Smuggling," and "False Tax Return" charges in the original and superseding indictments," they wrote.

"The unavoidable impression here is that -- if there is no substance to the government's threshold claim of false statement to the FBI -- the government is nevertheless determined to obtain a conviction of Dr. Butler on something -- indeed, anything."