Last fall I wrote about the bizarre case of University of Pittsburgh geneticist Robert Ferrell. Dr. Ferrell, you may recall, had been prosecuted for sharing generally-harmless strains of bacteria with a colleague, SUNY-Buffalo art professor Steven Kurtz. Dr. Kurtz then used the bacterial cultures in an art display, which drew the attention of authorities following the death of Dr. Kurtz’s wife. Then all hell broke loose (after the jump):

Ferrell violated [the Material Transfer Agreement] by sharing the strains with Kurtz. Normally, this would be an issue handled between Ferrell (and his university) and ATCC [American Type Culture Collection]; however, under the broad definitions of mail and wire fraud under the Patriot Act, the government stepped in and charged Kurtz and Ferrell with mail and wire fraud–felonies that, since they’re being charged under the Patriot Act, could carry a possible 20-year sentence.

While Kurtz is still facing prosecution, Ferrell plead guilty last fall to one count of “mailing an injurious article,” and was just sentenced–a $500 fine, probation, and his assistance in prosecuting Kurtz.

It’s good that Ferrell received a mild sentence, but the whole fiasco remains absurd. The Post-Gazette article notes that “Since the prosecution began, Dr. Ferrell has had three strokes and dealt twice with cancer.”

We need to deal with bioterrorist treats, granted. But spending years prosecuting this case–and potentially additional years with Kurtz’s–isn’t making us safer. It’s a distraction and a waste.


  1. #1 Dale
    February 21, 2008

    Agreed. This isn’t making any one safer from anything. What it is likely to do is make researchers a lot more hesitant about sharing cell lines, plasmids and bacteriological strains with their colleagues. It’s certainly had that effect on me.

  2. #2 jre
    February 21, 2008

    I saw a sympathetic film about the Kurtz case, in which the continuing prosecution of Kurtz and Ferrell appeared to be motivated by prosecutors’ desire to justify an absurdly paranoid overreaction after the fact. Unless there are facts not brought out in the film that might suggest another explanation, I have to agree: Kurtz and Ferrell should never have been charged, let alone hounded for years.

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