October 11, 2007
ILLNESS, 'ABSURD' PROSECUTION FORCE SCIENTIST TO PLEAD IN PRECEDENT-SETTING CASE
Scientist’s Wife and Daughter Comment on Case
Buffalo, NY – Today in Federal District Court, Dr. Robert Ferrell, Professor of Human Genetics at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health, under tremendous pressure, pled guilty to lesser charges rather than facing a prolonged trial for federal charges of “mail fraud” and “wire fraud” in a surreal post-PATRIOT Act legal case that has attracted worldwide attention.
“From the beginning, this has been a persecution, not a prosecution. Although I have not seen the final agreement, the initial versions contained incorrect and irrelevant information,” said Dr. Dianne Raeke Ferrell, Dr. Ferrell’s wife and an Associate Professor of Special Education and Clinical Services at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. “Bob is a 27 year survivor of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma which has reoccurred numerous times. He has also had malignant melanoma. Since this whole nightmare began, Bob has had two minor strokes and a major stroke which required months of rehabilitation.”
Dr. Ferrell added that her husband was indicted just as he was preparing to undergo a painful and dangerous autologous stem cell transplant, the second in 7 years.
The Ferrell’s daughter, Gentry Chandler Ferrell, added: "Our family has struggled with an intense uncertainty about physical, emotional and financial health for a long time. Agreeing to a plea deal is a small way for dad to try to eliminate one of those uncertainties and hold on a little longer to the career he worked so hard to develop... Sadly, while institutions merely are tarnished from needless litigation, individuals are torn apart. I remain unable to wrap my mind around the absurdity of the government's pursuit of this case and I am saddened that it has been dragged out to the point where my dad opted to settle from pure exhaustion."
Dr. Ferrell’s colleague Dr. Steven Kurtz, founder of the internationally acclaimed art and theater group Critical Art Ensemble, was illegally detained and accused of “bioterrorism” by the U.S. government in 2004 stemming from his acquisition from Dr. Ferrell of harmless bacteria used in several of Critical Art Ensemble’s educational art projects. After a costly investigation lasting several months and failing to provide any evidence of “bioterrorism,” the Department of Justice instead brought charges of “mail fraud” and “wire fraud” against Kurtz and Ferrell. Under the USA PATRIOT Act, the maximum penalty for these charges has increased from 5 years to 20. (For more information about the case, please see “Background to the Case” below or http://caedefensefund.org)
JURIDICAL ART CRITICISM?
The government is vigorously attempting to prosecute two defendants in a case where no one has been injured, and no one has been defrauded. The materials found in Dr. Kurtz's house were obtained legally and used safely by the artist. After 3 1/2 years of investigation and prosecution, the case still revolves around $256 worth of common science research materials that were used in art works by a highly visible and respected group of artists. These art works were commissioned and hosted by cultural institutions worldwide where they had been safely displayed in museums and galleries with absolutely no risk to the public. The Government has consistently framed this case as an issue of public safety, but the materials used by Critical Art Ensemble are widely available, can be purchased by anyone from High School science supply catalogs, and are regularly mailed.
PROFESSORS OF ART & SCIENCE EXPRESS ALARM
“The government’s prosecution is an ill-conceived and misguided attack on the scientific and artistic communities,” said Dr. Richard Gronostajski, Professor of Biochemistry at SUNY Buffalo, where Professor Kurtz also teaches. “It could have a chilling effect on future scientific research collaborations, and harm teaching efforts and interactions between scientists, educators and artists.”
“It’s deeply alarming that the government could pressure someone of Dr. Ferrell’s stature into agreeing to something like this. The case threatens all Americans’ Constitutionally guaranteed right to question the actions of their government,” said Igor Vamos, Professor of Integrated Electronic Arts at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
PLEA COMES AMIDST OVERWHELMING PUBLIC SUPPORT FOR DEFENDANTS
The plea bargain agreement comes at a time of overwhelming public support for the two defendants. A film about the case, Strange Culture—directed by Lynn Hershman Leeson and featuring Tilda Swinton (Chronicles of Narnia, Michael Clayton), Thomas Jay Ryan (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), and Peter Coyote (E.T., Erin Brockovich)—has drawn widespread critical praise and public interest, with screenings in dozens of U.S. cities after its selection to open both the 2007 Human Rights Watch International Film Festival and the Berlin International Film Festival doc section. An October 1st screening of the film at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City drew a crowd of 400 who stayed for an hour afterward for a discussion with Hershman Leeson, Professor Kurtz, and Tilda Swinton. Special Benefit screenings of the film in numerous cities have raised thousands of dollars to offset the two defendants’ escalating legal costs.
BACKGROUND TO THE CASE
The legal nightmare of renowned scientist Dr. Robert Ferrell and artist and professor Dr. Steven Kurtz began in May 2004. Professor Kurtz and his late wife Hope were founding members of the internationally exhibited art and theater collective Critical Art Ensemble. Over the past decade cultural institutions worldwide have commissioned and hosted Critical Art Ensemble’s participatory theater projects that help the general public understand biotechnology and the many issues surrounding it. In May 2004 the Kurtzes were preparing a project examining genetically modified agriculture for the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, when Hope Kurtz died of heart failure. Detectives who responded to Professor Kurtz’s 911 call deemed the couple’s art suspicious, and called the FBI. Within hours the artist was illegally detained as a suspected "bioterrorist" as dozens of federal agents in Hazmat suits sifted through his work and impounded his computers, manuscripts, books, his cat, and even his wife’s body.
CASE DEPLETES PUBLIC & PRIVATE RESOURCES
The government has pursued this case relentlessly for three and a half years, spending enormous amounts of public resources. Most significantly, the legal battle has exhausted the financial, emotional, and physical resources of Ferrell and Kurtz; as well as their families and supporters. The professional and personal lives of both defendants have suffered tremendously. A trial date has not yet been established.