Thursday, September 02, 2004

Two Types of Plague 

Via Zemblan patriot T.C., the story of a scientist whose career was ended so that John Ashcroft could pretend to be doing his job:
It was a January weekend in 2003. Dr Thomas Butler, a world-renowned expert on bubonic plague, had called in at his laboratory at Texas Tech University. The 62-year-old microbiologist had worked with the disease for decades and always kept a meticulous record of what was in his lab and where. That day, he noticed that 30 vials of plague were missing. It was the beginning of a nightmare . . . .

Eighteen months on, Thomas Butler is no longer a doctor. He turned in his medical licence before it could be taken from him. His family - wife Elisabeth and four children, including a five-year-old son - are broke. He has lost his job and his lab, and he sits in a medium-security prison in Fort Worth, Texas. He is the most notorious scientist in the world, and probably the recipient of the most heavy-handed meting out of criminal justice in recent memory . . . .

After Butler had spent the weekend looking for the vials, he did what he was supposed to do and called the university security officer. Together they searched again. Maybe the containers had been misplaced or accidentally sterilised. It happens in labs: vials go through the autoclave at the end of a busy day by mistake. It's no big deal. But Butler didn't find them, and the FBI was called in.

Ashcroft immediately briefed the President on the missing plague. It did not matter that the FBI soon came to the conclusion that the vials had probably been destroyed accidentally. These 30 containers of yersinia pestis were now a national emergency, and Dr Thomas Butler, who had written a paper in the 1970s that pioneered oral rehydration therapy for diarrhoea and who could thus, with no arrogance, claim to have saved millions of lives, was now Dr Plague, suspected bio-terrorist.

Dr Plague cooperated fully with the investigation. He even waived his right to an attorney. He had worked for the government all his life, since his days as a navy doctor in Vietnam, and he trusted them. "I was tricked and deceived," said Butler in an interview with the CBS television show 60 Minutes last year. "I was naïve to have trusted them and the assurances they gave me."

The assurances were simple. To avert public panic, the FBI told Butler, he should sign a document stating that he had accidentally destroyed the vials. He would then be able to get back to work. He did so, and was promptly arrested. "Not for anything to do with the vials," says Turley. "But for lying to the FBI. It made no sense. He would never have created such controversy to conceal the accidental destruction of vials. Vials are accidentally destroyed in labs every day. All he would have had to do is get more plague."

But Butler had signed and things got even worse. House arrest; constant monitoring; nine months of intense pressure. According to his lawyers he was offered a deal - plead guilty and get six months in jail. He wouldn't plead guilty, he said, because he wasn't guilty. So the prosecutors threw the book at him. "It's called count stacking," explains Turley. "They throw as many counts as they can at the jury and hope they'll split the difference."

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