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February 21, 2008

Pitt prof gets fined for mailing bacteria

Pitt professor Robert Ferrell has been fined $500 for his role in obtaining biological organisms for a Buffalo art professor.

U.S. District Court Judge Richard J. Arcara also sentenced Ferrell to a year of unsupervised release, but no jail time, in his Feb. 11 decision.

Ferrell, a professor in the Graduate School of Public Health’s Department of Human Genetics, was indicted by a federal grand jury in 2004 on four felony counts — two counts of mail fraud and two counts of wire fraud — after he used his Pitt account to obtain and send two types of biological organisms to Steven Kurtz. Kurtz, a former art professor at Carnegie Mellon University, is a faculty member at the State University of New York at Buffalo.

Ferrell pleaded guilty last October to a misdemeanor for mailing the organisms in a way that violated postal service rules. Ferrell did not respond to requests for comment from the University Times.

Kurtz, who sought the organisms for use in an art project, still faces a trial on the felony charges, although his attorney argued last month to have the U.S. Justice Department’s case dismissed. Arcara is expected to issue a decision on the request sometime after both sides file legal briefs. Kurtz’s attorney’s brief is due Feb. 15; the government prosecutor has a March 7 deadline for response.

The bacteria were discovered in Kurtz’s home in May 2004 when police were called to the house following the death of Kurtz’s wife. They deemed suspicious the materials that included Petri dishes of the organisms and a mobile lab that were to be used in a Critical Art Ensemble (CAE) exhibition, prompting an investigation of possible bioterrorism by the FBI and Joint Terrorism Task Force authorities. Kurtz is a founding member of CAE, which bills itself as a collective that has produced and exhibited “art that examines questions surrounding information, communications and bio technologies.”

Kurtz’s wife was found to have died from causes unrelated to the presence of the bacteria in the home.

The controversial case has spawned a documentary, “Strange Culture,” and has drawn international attention as well as criticism from artists and scientists on the government’s seeming overreaction in prosecuting the two professors. An archive of media coverage on the case is available on the CAE web site at

Kurtz is scheduled to speak at 5 p.m. Feb. 19 at Carnegie Mellon University’s Kresge Theater as part of a CMU School of Art lecture series.

In his request for a lenient sentence, Ferrell’s attorney Efrem Grail asked the judge to consider the professor’s health, his lack of any criminal record and his cooperation in the case. Ferrell has been diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma and melanoma and has had at least three strokes.

Ferrell’s October plea and scheduled sentencing prompted an outpouring of letters urging the federal judge to be lenient.

Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg, Faculty Senate President John J. Baker and molecular genetics and biochemistry professor Patrick S. Moore were among those who submitted letters of support for Ferrell.

Nordenberg noted Ferrell received a 1998 Chancellor’s Distinguished Research Award, writing, “Because I do not know of any way in which he has ever fallen short of being a model citizen in our own community, I almost certainly never will understand what led him into the situation that produced the charges against him. However I can assure you that they stand in sharp contrast to Prof. Ferrell’s reputation and to everything that I know about him.” Nordenberg asked the judge to consider in his sentencing Ferrell’s “otherwise exemplary life — one that not only has been free of past offenses but that has been characterized by high achievement, deep impact and wide array of admirable qualities.”

—Kimberly K. Barlow

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