The art professor is finally cleared but a distinguished biologist was still punished by a ridiculous, mindless, cruel and utterly reckless use of raw power by the Bush administration:
A federal judge dismissed criminal indictments on Monday against an art professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo who was charged four years ago with mail and wire fraud after receiving bacteria through the mail that he said he planned to use in his art projects.
Judge Richard J. Arcara of the U.S. District Court in Buffalo ruled that the indictment against the professor, Steven J. Kurtz, was “insufficient on its face,” The Buffalo News reported.
In a telephone interview with The Chronicle on Monday night, Mr. Kurtz said he and his lawyers were surprised at the ruling because it is rare for judges to dismiss federal indictments. “This case was so ridiculous and out of line, and the judge did the right thing,” said Mr. Kurtz. He called the ruling a significant victory, but he noted that the case is not over. The U.S. Justice Department can appeal the judge’s ruling.
The case began in May 2004, when Mr. Kurtz called 911 after his 45-year-old wife died of heart failure (The Chronicle, June 18, 2004). Paramedics tried unsuccessfully to revive her, and Buffalo police officers, who were also called to the house, noticed petri dishes in Mr. Kurtz’s home filled with what they thought were curious substances. The police called officers from the FBI and the U.S. Joint Terrorism Task Force, who came to the home to investigate. They confiscated the petri dishes — which were filled with three kinds of bacteria — plus laboratory equipment. (Chronicle for Higher Education)
Dr. Ferrell’s story begins in 2004. Ferrell ordered two isolates of bacteria from the American Type Culture Collection (ATCC), a central repository for all types of biological samples. The species that Ferrell ordered were Bacillus subtilis, a soil bacterium sometimes used to model its pathogenic cousin, Bacillus anthracis, and Serratia marcescens, a ubiquitous bacterium that occasionally causes opportunistic infections. These species of bacteria are commonly used in high school and college microbiology labs because of their low pathogenicity. (Serratia is particularly nice because it produces a red pigment as it grows). Ferrell then mailed these to another professor and artist, Dr. Steven Kurtz of SUNY-Buffalo and founder of the Critical Art Ensemble (CAE). (Tara Smith, Aetiology)
The Bush administration decided to show how tough they were on bioterrorists by seeking a federal indictment against Kurtz and Ferrell at a time when Kurtz had just lost his wife and Ferrell was about to undergo bone marrow transplant for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (he subsequently suffered two small and one major stroke). You don’t know who Bob Ferrell is? I’ll repeat here a thumbnail sketch from someone who knows him well:
Who is Bob Ferrell? He’s the Chairman of the Department of Human Genetics at the University of Pittsburgh. A gentle man with a congenial Southern accent who wouldn’t hurt a fly–Drosophila excepted–who was suspected of terrorism. I’ve known Bob for several years and you will never meet a more unlikely villain. Not only is he a superb scientist, he is not afraid to bridge C.P. Snow’s two cultures by working with artists and anthropologists to apply molecular biology to their disciplines. A model scientist–all non-scientists wish the rest of us would be more like him. (zootfloggin Diary, Christmas, Wire-Fraud and the Click of Mussolini’s Boots-A Science Diary)
Ferrell, rather than prolong the case while undergoing stressful medical treatment, pled guilty and was fined $500 and a year of unsupervised probation. Doesn’t sound like they thought he was really a threat. Still, too bad, but understandable. Kurtz fought it and has been vindicated.
Of course the Bushies might decide to file an Appeal. All in the name of making us safe from artists, of course. Only 271 more days of being kept secure by these assholes.