The married couple had left their jobs as gene researchers at Harvard Medical School for promising new work at the University of Texas when they were arrested four years ago on charges of economic espionage and accused of plotting to sell trade secrets to a Japanese drug company.
Jiangyu Zhu, 34, and his wife, Kayoko Kimbara, 36, who insisted they had merely taken some of their work with them, were indicted three years later on lesser charges of transporting stolen property across state lines.
But yesterday, US Attorney Michael J. Sullivan acknowledged the case just wasn't worth pursuing. Under an unusual agreement filed with the court, Sullivan said he'll dismiss the indictment against the couple in a year as long as they don't break any laws.
In exchange, Zhu and Kimbara, who now live in San Diego, admitted they removed 20 cartons of research materials from Harvard's laboratory over the Christmas break in 1999 without Harvard's permission.
''Initially when the matter was brought to our attention, we believed the criminal conduct was much more serious than what ultimately the evidence supported," Sullivan said.
A lengthy investigation revealed that the information taken from Harvard wasn't proprietary so there was no evidence to support allegations that the researchers were involved in the theft of trade secrets, Sullivan said.
''The only issue that remained was whether there was interstate transportation of stolen property," said Sullivan, adding that Zhu and Kimbara disputed Harvard's claims and all of the property was later returned to Harvard.
Sullivan said Zhu and Kimbara would probably have been sentenced to probation if convicted, and had already spent four years under strict bail conditions, including curfews, travel restrictions, and electronic monitoring.
Los Angeles attorney Dan Marmalefsky, who represents Kimbara, said the couple cooperated fully with the investigation, providing information that helped persuade prosecutors that allegations of economic espionage were unfounded.
''After nearly four years, the crux of this case was whether our clients should have requested permission from a Harvard professor before shipping certain research materials to a new laboratory, where they intended to continue their work on a proposed article for a scientific journal," Marmalefsky said.