By Dan Herbeck NEWS STAFF REPORTER
Updated: 10/12/07 7:07 AM
Genetics researcher Robert E. Ferrell pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge Thursday in connection with a federal mail fraud case that has upset many people in the art world.
Ferrell told a judge his guilty plea — in a case that also involves a University at Buffalo art professor — was voluntary.
But after the court session, his wife called the case “a persecution, not a prosecution.”
“Sir, is anyone forcing you to plead guilty?” U.S. District Judge Richard J. Arcara asked Ferrell, 64, of Pittsburgh. “Is anyone threatening you in any way?” “No, sir,” Ferrell said.
But Ferrell’s wife, Dianne Raeke Ferrell, said in a later telephone interview that her husband was pressured by the government and that his serious health problems caused him to cave in and plead guilty.
“From the beginning, this has been a persecution, not a prosecution,” she said. “I think the government has been relentless, and it is very difficult to fight the government with all the powers it now has. I don’t think my husband feels he was pressured, but we do. He just wants it all to go away.”
The case against Ferrell and Buffalo artist Steven A. Kurtz has touched off angry protests from artists all over the world who feel the two men are victims of government oppression.
The Justice Department has denied those allegations, saying the case arose from public safety con-
cerns over the handling of potentially harmful forms of bacteria.
William J. Hochul Jr., a federal prosecutor in Buffalo who specializes in homeland security cases, declined to comment on the allegations made by Ferrell’s wife. But he pointed out to reporters that Ferrell had stated under oath that he pleaded guilty because he is guilty.
In court, Ferrell’s attorney, Efrem M. Grail, thanked Hochul several times for being patient and understanding of Ferrell’s medical problems. He noted that Ferrell suffers from Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and has had multiple strokes since his 2004 indictment.
Arcara accepted Ferrell’s guilty plea and scheduled sentencing for Feb. 11, 2008. Under federal sentencing guidelines, the Pittsburgh researcher is expected to receive no more than six months in prison.
Kurtz, who insists he and Ferrell did nothing illegal, still faces trial in the case, which is also the subject of “Strange Culture,” an acclaimed documentary film. His supporters in the art world feel Kurtz is under attack by the government because his works criticize government actions and policies.
“[Kurtz] believes the case should have been dismissed a long time ago. He is committed to go to trial,” said Edmund Cardoni, a Kurtz friend and spokesman for a committee that has raised more than $200,000 for Kurtz’s legal defense.
Cardoni accused prosecutors of “exploiting” Ferrell’s frail health to force him to plead guilty and testify against Kurtz.
If the government is successful in prosecuting Kurtz, “any artist, journalist, reader or person who uses libraries” could also face prosecution, Cardoni charged.
Cardoni also released a statement in which Mrs. Ferrell and the Ferrells’ daughter, Gentry Chandler Ferrell, criticized the government prosecution and indicated that Ferrell’s health problems led him to plead guilty.
Ferrell and Kurtz were indicted in June 2004 on accusations that Ferrell used his university credentials to help Kurtz obtain bacteria under false pretenses.
Supporters of Ferrell and Kurtz argue the two are victims of a post-9/11 government crackdown on free speech and personal freedoms.
Federal prosecutors deny those allegations, saying the case was the result of some public safety concerns expressed by Buffalo police after the bacteria were found in a small laboratory in Kurtz’s home on College Street in Allentown.
A Buffalo police detective, Christopher Dates, found the bacteria after police were called to investigate the death of Kurtz’s wife, Hope Kurtz. A later autopsy showed she died of natural causes.
Hochul told Arcara that Dates notified a federal anti-terrorism task force after finding “suspicious-appearing items” in the home.
The task force investigation led to mail fraud and wire fraud charges against Kurtz and Ferrell, who were accused of obtaining the bacteria under false pretenses. The two men were never charged with any terrorist crime.
Kurtz’s supporters say the two forms of bacteria are harmless organisms often used in high school science experiments. The government says the bacteria are “potentially injurious” and cannot be legally sent through the mail without certain precautions.
Hochul indicated that e-mails exchanged by the two men would be important evidence in the case against Kurtz.
“Well, it looks like my bacteria is not as harmless as I previous thought,” Kurtz said in a late 2003 e-mail quoted in court papers. “While not wildly dangerous, it is associated with pneumonia and urinary tract infections. . . . ”
Hochul said Kurtz got Ferrell to obtain the bacteria after officials at a Virginia laboratory turned Kurtz down.
Speaking to The Buffalo News 90 minutes after the court session, Grail said he and Ferrell were unaware that Ferrell’s wife and daughter had planned to criticize the plea agreement. The attorney said Ferrell spoke honestly when he said he was not threatened or forced to take the plea deal.
“If Dr. Ferrell’s wife and daughter have a different view, I would defend their right to say it,” Grail said.
Arcara will hear legal arguments Oct. 30 on Kurtz’s request for a dismissal of all charges. No trial date has been set.