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Jury deliberates in scientist trial

Specialist on plague accused of lying to FBI, transporting bacteria

LUBBOCK, Texas -- A jury yesterday deliberated for a day without reaching a verdict on whether a world-famous specialist on bubonic plague made false statements to the FBI and if he illegally imported, exported, and transported the dread disease's bacteria.

Deliberations will resume Monday. If convicted, Texas Tech University professor Thomas Butler faces up to life in prison.

In closing arguments, prosecutors portrayed Butler as a rogue scientist and a disgruntled employee who created a hoax when he reported in January that 30 vials containing the plague were missing.

But in closing arguments in a case that has divided scientists and security specialists, lawyers for Butler argued that the researcher was being charged with a series of regulatory crimes and that he could only be found guilty if he was acting in bad faith.

The defense lawyers said that since Butler had been asked by the US government to conduct research on the plague, and had acted in a consistent manner for his 30 years of research, it is impossible to say he acted in bad faith.

Butler is on trial on 69 federal charges, including making false statements to the FBI; illegally importing, exporting, and transporting the bacteria that can cause plague; fraud, and violating US tax laws. He could face up to life in prison and $17.1 million in fines.

"He defies everybody. He thinks he is above authority. He thinks he is above the law," prosecutor Michael Snipes said of Butler.

The government contends that Butler did not obtain proper permits to acquire samples of plague from his research in Tanzania, or when exporting samples back to the country.

They also said Butler was facing troubles at Texas Tech relating to consulting contracts and with his research, which prompted him to report in January that plague vials had gone missing or may have been stolen.

The FBI sent 60 agents to Lubbock, in western Texas, to investigate. As part of President Bush's war on terrorism, federal authorities have been on the alert for signs of any biological attack in the United States.

Butler's defense contends that the government overreacted and quickly tried to distance itself from Butler because of the scare raised during the massive law-enforcement investigation in Lubbock. "They [the government] were encouraging Tom Butler to do this stuff [plague research], and we needed it as a country," Chuck Meadows said in closing arguments for the defense.

Meadows said matters relating to Butler's consulting contracts were best suited for civil court. He also said the plague scare caused the federal government to nitpick the way Butler filled out forms and received approvals for his research, and to indict Butler for felonies.

"Are they looking for a crime, or what?" Meadows asked.

Butler, 62, a leading plague researcher, had been working with the federal government to find a plague antidote that could be used if a biological attack occurred.

Last week, he testified in his own defense, and said several times to the jury that he had broken no laws.

Butler testified that he had simply lost track of the vials. He might in fact have destroyed them, he said.

In a statement to the FBI, he said that he did destroy the vials, but in testimony, Butler said he was coerced into making that statement by an FBI agent who wanted to quickly allay fears about stolen plague vials.

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