Law in Contemporary Society

A Plea for Dr. Tom Butler

-- By CourtneySmith - 25 Feb 2010

Dr. Plague

Tom Butler did not hang, nor was he a martyr for a noble cause. He is, however, a good man, one actuated by higher motives, who dedicated his time and talent not to the pursuit of mammon, but to developing cures for the diseases that kill the poorest of the world’s poor. In the course of his work, he fell victim to the terrific power of the state and to political exigencies in a climate of fear and distrust; he was made an example of. Though he has been out of federal prison for almost five years now, he has been virtually stripped of his profession. One of the world’s preeminent experts on infectious disease, he is no longer allowed to practice medicine in the United States. His life savings are gone. His wife was deprived of her partner and his children were deprived of their father for two years. He has been forced to give up his license to practice medicine and has been characterized by his government as an “evil genius” and a criminal. His picture ran on CNN and the evening news with the caption “Dr. Plague.” He has settled down to what one hopes is a quiet and sunny existence teaching medicine on an island in the Caribbean, but his life will never be the same.

“First, as to his history.”

In 2003, Tom Butler, 61, was a distinguished professor of medicine at Texas Tech University, in Lubbock, Texas, where he lived with his wife and their four children. He had served as a military physician for three years in Vietnam, specializing in infectious disease, specifically the bubonic plague. Dr. Butler worked among the poor in Tanzania, Bangladesh, and Calcutta and is noted for his role in developing oral rehydration therapy as the standard treatment for diarrhea, an innovation which saved millions of lives worldwide.

On the morning of January 14, 2003, Dr. Butler notified Texas Tech campus safety officers that 30 vials of Yersinia pestis (which causes bubonic plague) were missing from his lab. To this day no one is sure what happened to the vials. They may have been stolen or destroyed, either accidentally or intentionally, by Dr. Butler himself or by someone else. Because of nationwide fears of bioterrorism, university officials notified the FBI. Within hours, 60 FBI agents had landed in Lubbock. The missing plague had made headlines and created an uproar, and the agents were determined to figure out what had happened.

Modern Magic: Pneumograph, Galvanometer, Cuff

At 1:45 a.m. on Wednesday, January 15, an FBI agent hooked Dr. Butler up to a lie detector and began interrogating him. Never imagining that he himself was a suspect, and eager to help locate the missing samples, Dr. Butler cooperated with investigators and waived his right to counsel. When Dr. Butler said he was not “involved in the removal of the 30 vials of bubonic plague from the lab,” the Lafayette Thermal Polygraph determined he was probably lying. At this point, Butler, who had been awake for 18 hours, became the government’s leading suspect. The FBI searched Butler's house at 3:30 a.m., then left him to sleep for approximately two hours before the ordeal continued.

At noon, Agent Green, the polygraph operator of the night before, told the doctor that all possible alternatives had been ruled out: Butler himself must have accidentally destroyed the vials. Butler recalls that he was promised immunity and told that everyone could walk away (and that serious public fears would be allayed) if he would simply sign a sworn statement that he had been mistaken, and that he had accidentally destroyed the vials himself. Exhausted and confused, Butler signed, and was promptly arrested for lying to the FBI.

Freedom of the Individual and the State

In addition to the charge for lying to the FBI, as if he had reported the vials stolen as part of an elaborate hoax, Dr. Butler was charged with 68 additional offenses, ranging from fraud, embezzlement, and tax evasion to illegal transportation of plague bacteria. The charges carried a maximum sentence of 469 years in prison and $17 million in fines, but prosecutors offered him six months if he would plead guilty. Believing he had done nothing wrong, Dr. Butler refused. The National Academy of Sciences, the Institute of Medicine, and four Nobel Laureates wrote in his support, asserting that all of the practices of which Butler had been accused (the government focused on Butler’s international transportation of specimens and his compensation for outside research) are standard in the medical research community. In spite of a competent defense and widespread support, some of the charges stuck, and Butler was sentenced to two years in federal prison.

Dr. Butler’s case, while rare in the world of Nobel Laureates, is by no means unique in our justice system; a prosecutor always exercises discretion in determining whom to pursue and how, a decision which is invariably informed by politics. In this case, the goal was sending a hard-line message about weapons of mass destruction; in the more mundane case it's a similar message about the war on drugs or about a D.A. being tough on crime. Nor are the strong-arm tactics used on Butler unique. Perhaps the only really outstanding things about his case were the facts that he had (and could afford) a zealous defender, and that he belongs to an elite professional community which rallied in his support, and even those advantages couldn't save Butler from experiencing the enormity of the state's coercive force. It's hard to imagine how the more typical defendant in such a case, represented by an overworked public defender, would fare any better.


The local defender who represented Dr. Butler at trial died this month. He is remembered here in terms which would make most lawyers proud.


Webs Webs

r6 - 13 Jan 2012 - 23:14:10 - IanSullivan
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