BOSTON--Government prosecutors surprised a court last week by seeking a 6-month delay in proceedings against two biologists accused of stealing research secrets from Harvard University. Observers say the move suggests that the government is not yet ready to take its case to trial.
Jiang Yu Zhu and Kayoko Kimbara were jailed last month after an FBI complaint alleged that they conspired to steal research materials and secrets when the couple, who are married, left Harvard University in 1999 after working as postdocs in the lab of cell biologist Frank McKeon at Harvard Medical School. Released on bail, they appeared on 17 July at a 10-minute hearing here in U.S. District Court. Both prosecution and defendants have agreed to a 180-day continuance, which prosecutor Robert Wallace says will allow the two sides "to discuss the case and see if [there is] any resolution." He declined further explanation of why the government supports a delay.
"This is an extraordinarily unusual request," said presiding judge Robert Collings, adding that he had not encountered anything similar in 20 years on the bench. The government normally has 30 days after an arrest to seek an indictment. Collings promised a ruling after the government and defendants filed the extension request this week, adding that his decision would be based on whether a delay serves the public interest.
The FBI complaint charges the couple with shipping material of significant commercial value to Japan and mailing reagents and other materials from Harvard to Zhu at the University of Texas, San Antonio, where he had a brief postdoctoral appointment. Their intent, says the complaint, was to use Harvard trade secrets for their own profit (ScienceNOW, 21 June).
After the hearing, lawyers for Zhu and Kimbara released a statement quoting the researchers as saying that "the government did not have the benefit of hearing our position--that no crime was committed--before it acted." Spokespeople for both sides declined to say if the FBI ever interviewed the two.
Zhu, a Chinese citizen, and Kimbara, a Japanese national, are restricted in their movements and are on administrative leave from their jobs pending investigations by their current employers, Zhu at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), and Kimbara at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California. UCSD spokesperson Kim McDonald says, "nothing [Zhu] has done here leads us to question his work," while Scripps spokesperson Robin Clark says that Kimbara "will be given the opportunity" to return if the investigation finds no wrongdoing.