On Thursday last week, Dr. Robert Ferrell, Professor of Human Genetics at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health, pleaded guilty under intense pressure from the Department of Justice to charges of “wire fraud” and “mail fraud”, a decision family and friends say was due to his severe illness. Dr. Ferrell has lymphoma and malignant melanoma. He has had two minor strokes and endured months of rehabilitation since he and Steven Kurtz of the Critical Art Ensemble were indicted under the Patriot Act in 2004 for “bioterrorism”. Dr. Ferrell was indicted because he helped the artist collective obtain culture samples for their public art installations.
After failing to produce any evidence that would support charges of bioterrorism, the Department of Justice (DOJ) changed the charges to “mail fraud” and “wire fraud”. The maximum penalty under the Patriot Act for these charges is 20 years. Gentry Ferrell, Dr. Ferrell’s daughter, said in a statement that “The fact that after battling these many tribulations he is not left with the strength to take on the monstrosity of this absurd prosecution on top of his struggle to recover from the strokes and face unending cancer is an indication only of his human limitation, and not of any correctness, much less virtuousness or righteousness, of the prosecution.”
The case involves the art work of the Critical Art Ensemble, a highly respected art collective who were commissioned and hosted by cultural institutions around the world. The DOJ has framed its prosecution as a public safety issue without any evidence that there has been a threat to public safety of any kind. The materials used by the Critical Art Ensemble are purchasable from high school science catalogues.
The case has received increasing international attention, including a documentary film which we blogged about at Art Threat in February.
For more information and background about the case, check out the Critical Art Ensemble Defense Fund.