The Case of Thomas Butler: The Last Chapter

06.02.06 | 2 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

The prosecution of Thomas C. Butler, the distinguished scientist who was convicted in 2004 of exporting plague bacteria to Tanzania without proper authorization and of various contract violations, came to a final conclusion last month when the U.S. Supreme Court denied his petition (pdf) to review the matter.

Yet the Butler case may endure as a parable of our times, since Dr. Butler, a specialist in plague and other infectious diseases, is such an unlikely criminal and the government’s pursuit of him seems so heavy-handed.

By all accounts, Butler is a person of extraordinary stature and achievement.

“The defendant’s research and discoveries have led to the salvage of millions (!) of lives throughout the world,” Judge Sam R. Cummings of the Northern District of Texas admitted in March 2004, before sentencing him to two years in jail.

A terrorist is one who destroys life indiscriminately. We lack a word for someone who saves millions of lives indiscriminately. If there were such a word, it could be applied without exaggeration to Thomas Butler.

But incredibly, his expertise in infectious diseases was invoked against him by the post-9/11 prosecution.

“From the outset of the trial, the government openly sought to use the specter of plague to convince the jury that Dr. Butler was a ‘bad person’,” wrote Butler’s defense attorney, George Washington University professor Jonathan Turley.

“The government analogized the actions of Dr. Butler to the practice in the Middle Ages of catapulting plague-infested human cadavers into walled cities to cause panic and death, bringing widespread panic to the quiet town of Lubbock,” Turley recalled.

See the Butler’s petition for certiorari, filed at the U.S. Supreme Court on April 11, 2006.

The petition was denied without comment by the Court in a May 15, 2006 order.

Science Magazine (26 May 2006, p. 1120) reported that “His supporters, including chemistry Nobelist Peter Agre… are hoping against hope for a presidential pardon, if not from George W. Bush then possibly from his successor.”

Selected case files, statements of support and other background materials on the Butler case are available from the Federation of American Scientists here.

Dr. Butler completed his prison term and returned home in December 2005.