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Judge again denies bail for Chinese researcher charged with trying to smuggle cell samples out of Boston in a sock

A federal judge in Worcester yesterday ordered that Zaosong Zheng, a Chinese doctor doing post-graduate research at Beth Israel Hospital, remain locked up for the time being, denying his request for bail for a second time following his arrest at Logan Airport in December.

Meanwhile, in a separate case, a federal judge in Boston set bail at $1 million for Charles Lieber, the chairman of the Harvard chemistry department, who was arrested on Tuesday for allegedly failing to note a long-term, lucrative contract with a Chinese university on his applications for federal research grants. The judge in that case not only ordered him to surrender his passport but ordered his wife to turn over hers, as well, even though she has not been charged with anything.

In a request for bail of $50,000, Zheng's attorneys painted a dramatically different picture of the researcher than federal prosecutors. Rather than being a tool of the Chinese government's efforts to steal American knowhow, his lawyers, who include well known local defense attorney Norman Zalkind, argued that Zheng was a good soul who dedicated his life to fighting cancer after his father died from it and who, ultimately, simply made a mistake in not declaring the biological samples in 21 vials the government says was in his checked luggage as he was about to board a plane to China on Dec. 9.

As proof that Zheng was not up to anything evil, his lawyers said the could produce a copy of the return ticked he'd purchased from China back to Boston for Dec. 29 - and had already arranged a place to stay in the Boston area when he returned, three days after the lease on his old apartment expired.

According to their memorandum in support of bail, Zheng's attorneys wrote:

Although his wife’s family is middle class (her parents are engineers) and is funding his defense, his own family is very poor. He excelled in school and earned a medical degree in China. After his father died from cancer, he entered a Ph.D. program to conduct cancer research. He was in the United State as a part of his Ph.D. studies, working in a cancer research lab at Beth Israel Hospital for two years before returning to China to complete his studies and write his dissertation. He has always excelled in his studies and in his medical practice and has devoted his life to his work. He has never been in any sort of trouble before these charges.

Mr. Zheng’s wife, Wenjie Zhu, is also in the United States conducting research at the National Institute of Health. She has attended all of the hearings and will be present for the arraignment on the indictment in this case. She has been able to raise $25,000 additional funds for bail in addition to the $15,000 which her father’s friend previously posted, and which it is our understanding remains in the clerk’s office. This is a substantial sum for his wife’s family and reflects how strongly Mr. Zheng’s wife and her family believe in him. ...

We understand from his wife that he had, before leaving, already arranged to move to a different apartment in the same building with the friend who was staying at the apartment in his absence, Weihai Liu ... His things were packed because he would be moving with Mr. Liu on January 1, in the same building. He had purchased a return ticket to be back on the 29th. He had 8 months left to work in the Beth Israel lab. All of these arrangements were in place before Mr. Zheng left for the airport on December 9.

The attorneys add another reason not to keep Zheng behind bars for long: Federal cases often play out over months, and often longer, and that means Zheng could be imprisoned longer just awaiting trial than the maximum possible sentence for his alleged crimes. Although, theoretically, Zheng could get up to ten years, his lack of a criminal record and other mitigating factors likely mean that under federal sentencing guidelines, he more realistically is looking at no more than six months if he is found guilty, they wrote.

Mr. Zheng should not be detained for proceedings that could take many months, or even more than a year, given the strong likelihood that he will do no, or little, time if he is convicted. Moreover, our view is that he has a very good chance of acquittal at trial, and we have so advised him. Mr. Kelly, his federal defender, argued eloquently why, given his career, he would not want to flee and leave open charges in this case. He would be severely restricted in that career, unable to travel to attend conferences, unable to visit universities if invited to teach or conduct research outside of China. But in addition, based on our initial investigation, we understand that Mr. Zheng’s career in China would be ruined if he returns with these charges unresolved. He will not be able to complete his Ph.D. and his ability to practice medicine will be curtailed. His wife’s family and her father’s friend are prepared to post substantial money to assure his presence, and for him to leave would cause him shame with his in-laws and strain that relationship. He is prepared to stay here and fight these charges.

Following his arrest, Hennessy initially set bail at $100,000, but then revoked that before Zheng could be released.

In denying Zheng's new bail request, Hennessy said his lawyers could re-file the request. Federal prosecutors had objected to granting him bail yesterday because, they said, Zheng's attorneys filed their request only two hours before the hearing, too little time for them to read and formally respond to it.

Zheng was not the first researcher at a local institution stopped at Logan with biological samples that were allegedly improperly labeled or packaged. On Dec. 21, an official at Brigham and Women's Hospital sent a memo to hospital researchers warning them to be careful if they were planning to go abroad with samples. In the memo, Dr. Paul Anderson, the hospital's chief academic officer, wrote that three Partners researchers had been stopped at Logan in November when ""they attempted to export or import materials hidden in their luggage without declaring them" and that in total in 2019, there were "approximately 18 interceptions at Logan Airport resulting in confiscation and visa cancellation."
Innocent, etc.

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Comments

Nobody should ever be prosecuted for trying to repeat an experiment in a different lab, no matter where it is located.

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That's true, but it should be replicated in a US lab, with the knowledge and permission of the PI, within the terms of whatever grant agreements are in place to fund the research. Eight months to go on his contract means that he was getting ready to bolt, and steal intellectual property in the process. My father used to talk about how Japan bought as much scrap metal as the US would deliver in the 1930's, and "they threw it all back at us". China has no long term friendship in mind when it comes to the US. Anyone who denies what is going on is either completely naive, or more interested in their own short term gain. Andrew Lelling and associates, please keep up the great work.

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What does need to happen is to have permission to remove the actual samples (otherwise it's theft) and to transport them safely and legally.

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Nobody should ever be prosecuted for trying to repeat an experiment in a different lab, no matter where it is located.

Nobody's being prosecuted for trying to repeat an experiment. He's being prosecuted for, among other things, stealing stuff that wasn't his, transporting said stuff internationally in violation of customs regulations, lying to customs officials, and, possibly, charges related to endangering the public by improperly transporting biological materials.

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and an essential safety precaution. Samples shouldn't be smuggled wrapped in socks.

(NB: I'm a researcher in favor of replication, and also safety.)

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People who are justifying Zheng's (alleged) behavior seem to be looking at it without the context -- namely, that there's a long history of the Chinese stealing U.S. intellectual property. It's mostly been publicized in the electronics sector, but biotech is also susceptible.

Also, it seems reasonable to assume that foreign nationals who engage in such behavior are more likely to skip bail than the average accused person -- after all, they have someplace "safe" to go from which they're unlikely to be extradited, and the bail money they'd sacrifice might be trivial compared to the value of the secrets at stake. So denying bail in this kind of case does have a kind of logic to it.

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The memo from Dr. Anderson actually says not to travel with samples period. Full stop. It’s never legal whether you declare them or not. Samples must be shipped by a common carrier. Not carried on your person in a sock or otherwise. Also need all the clearances and paperwork that comes with removing them from the lab and taking them to an entirely different country or wherever.

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If the samples are properly packaged and declared (and of the appropriate type) they can travel as checked baggage. As a result of this case some institutions are having a knee jerk reaction of not allowing this. Which will stifle needed research. Some clinical trials are happening in places where fedex is not, and other ways of (safely) transporting specimens have to be available.

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I think this was more likely a case of "...besides whatever may or may not have been the law at one time, and whatever the exact law (and enforcement policy) is now (whether or not we like the change), I [Anderson, as an appropriate official of the hospital] am making a clear statement/directive of our organizational procedures..."
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Besides any question of compliance, it might be a question of security and fiscal prudence. Send materials with an insured shipper instead of "along with someone" where checked baggage could be lost.
Send materials with an insured shipper or bonded courier instead of "along with someone" (such as a researcher) who might have motive to abscond with them.

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