Skip to comments.Scientist on trial: Thomas Butler's day in court
Posted on 11/22/2003 11:10:39 AM PST by TrebleRebel
Microbiologist Thomas Butler faces 69 criminal charges in federal court, including lying to the FBI about 30 vials of plague bacteria that went missing from his laboratory at Texas Tech. If convicted on all counts, he could be fined $17 million and be sentenced to up to 469 years in prison. Allies in the scientific community say that Butler is the victim of prosecutorial overkill. But the government says Butler broke rules designed to protect the nation against bioterrorism. Observers say the outcome could have a big impact on life science researchers working with potentially dangerous agents.
It was a source of endless speculation among watchers of the Thomas Butler trial: Would the defendant take the stand? Becoming a witness in his own trial would give Butler a chance to tell his side of the story and appeal to the jury's sympathy--which he may badly need given the evidence prosecutors have amassed on some of the 69 counts. But testifying would also expose him to withering cross-examination by prosecutors that could hurt his case. With all players in the Butler case under a court-imposed gag order, the decision had been a well-kept secret.
But after a short break around 11 a.m. on Thursday, attorney Chuck Meadows finally made the announcement: "Your honor, the defense calls Tom Butler."
Sitting silent amid his five-member defense team for the last two and a half weeks, Butler had shown few emotions. At times he appeared distanced and somewhat aloof. But on the witness stand, he seemed to thaw. Meadow's questions covered everything from Butler's childhood in Nashville and Baltimore to his professional history and his fateful trip to Tanzania in April 2002; it touched on many personal aspects of his life, such as meeting his wife Elisabeth in Stockholm in the 1970s ("Did y'all immediately get married?" Meadows asked in his characteristic Texas drawl) and their four children, three of whom sat in the courtroom today. The jury listened intently.
The 5 hours of testimony focused on two of the four types of charges: allegedly lying to the FBI, both about what happened with the missing vials and about his knowledge of the rules for handling dangerous microbes; and illegal transportation of plague bacteria.
* The FBI's smooth operator
Butler described in great detail the most puzzling aspect of the case: why he reported 30 vials of plague missing on 13 January, then signed a statement 2 days later that he had accidentally destroyed them. He claimed he had been tricked by Dale Green, an FBI agent from Dallas with "a smooth manner" who was flown to Lubbock on 14 January and who questioned Butler for several hours that same night and the next day. He also said he never lied to the agents, as has been charged.
On the evening of 14 January, the case of the missing vials had already spiraled into something much bigger than Butler had imagined, he testified. Fifty or 60 FBI agents were descending on Lubbock from around the country, he was told. The president had been notified. Butler himself, thinking he was a witness, not a suspect, had fully cooperated with the FBI all day, he said. Special agents Mike Orndorff and Shannon Fish had already interviewed him for hours when Green took over around midnight.
In a small room at the Lubbock police headquarters, furnished with a table and two chairs, Green questioned Butler about a wide range of subjects, he said. The session included a polygraph test--but although the outcome may have played a major role in the day's dynamic, the evidence has been barred from the courtroom, and Butler did not bring it up during his testimony. After the interview, when Butler was taken home, 11 agents came along to search his house; they left around 5:30 in the morning.
The next day, after 2 hours of sleep, Orndorff and Fish picked Butler up at his home just as he was ready to go to work, Butler said. In their car, they told him that Agent Green had more questions to ask. At the police station, Green told him that his story could not be true, Butler testified. There had not been a break-in in Butler's lab, Green said; instead, the FBI had concluded that the vials had been destroyed by Butler himself. "We've essentially eliminated the other possibilities," he quoted Green as saying; "No evidence points to any theft. So they must have been destroyed."
Green encouraged Butler to think hard about how this might have happened. Butler volunteered that sometimes a lab accident, such as a spill, could result in the accidental disposal and sterilization of samples, and that such an accident had happened earlier that month--although he couldn't remember many details. "That's what I'm looking for. Go for this," Green told him, according to Butler. "Think more about that." He left the room to give Butler time to remember what had happened.
Green then asked Butler to write up a statement withdrawing his earlier report, and suggested many phrases that he should include, Butler said. They went "back and forth" over many sentences and in the end, the statement became a "composite effort which fit what he wanted and what I felt comfortable with." Among the things Green wanted was a sentence saying Butler had not been promised anything in return for his statement, and another assuring the public that it was not in any danger.
The question remained why Butler would write and sign a document he now says was false. Butler says he fell for Green's power of persuasion. The FBI agent promised him that his signature would make the whole thing go away, he said; the city and the nation could be reassured, the agents sent home, and Butler would be out of trouble. "If you're able to recall this for me and give me a statement to that effect, I'll be on your side," Butler quoted him as saying. "We'll both walk out of here and nobody will be investigated." (Butler had not talked to a lawyer at that time.)
But that promise was false, Butler said. After signing the statement, he still wasn't free to go. Orndorff and Fish had yet more questions for him; then he had to wait several hours while agents were busy talking in another room. It was after 5 p.m., and police station personnel were leaving for the day.
Finally, he said, Orndorff and Fish approached him and told him he was being arrested. "My stomach froze in my chest," Butler said. "I was stunned in disbelief." Then, he said, "they put handcuffs on, escorted me to their car, and took me to jail."
* Out of Africa
Butler also testified about his shipping the samples from Africa back to the U.S. He said he was unaware of the law that required him to get a permit before bringing them in, he said. And he contested the prosecution's assertion that his actions had been reckless. In the courtroom, Butler demonstrated how the plague cultures were contained in small, tough, waterproof plastic vials, whose caps he sealed with tape as an extra precaution before they were wrapped in paper and placed in a plastic bottle, whose cap was also sealed.
Once in the U.S., Butler made it clear to researchers at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that he had the samples and planned to deliver them. Again, nobody told him to stop, he said. On the contrary. CDC's David Dennis wrote him in an e-mail: "This is great. Congratulations again, and I like your plan for testing."
Butler resolutely denied that many patients in the Tanzanian trial had not given their informed consent and that he tried to obscure this fact from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which had agreed to "purchase" the results from the study. In Butler's lab diary, many patients' data were accompanied by a note saying "no consent"--but those words were whited out in copies of the notebook Butler sent to the FDA. Although it's not part of the charges, the prosecution has made a big issue out of this alleged deceit.
But Butler says that he made the "no consent" notes when he first copied the patient files into his notebook and noticed that a written consent form was missing for some. When he checked with local collaborators what had happened, they told him that many people had been very reluctant to sign their names. But each and every one of the patients had given their verbal consent, they assured him. "That 'no consent' was no longer truthful" when he sent FDA officials the data, Butler said.
* More to come ...
The defense's questioning will continue on Friday and is likely to address two other types of charges: that Butler defrauded Texas Tech by making drug companies pay him personally for his collaboration in clinical trials; and that he committed fraud on his income tax return.
I say the citizen of this country ought to sue the FBI for fraud.