Criminal Attorney Speaks for Controversial CFS Researcher

Jon is a staff writer for Science.

When Judy Mikovits, a researcher well-known for her controversial studies linking a mouse retrovirus to chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), was jailed on a felony charge of being a fugitive from justice, she could not defend herself from behind bars and her criminal attorney chose not to comment. But now she has a new attorney, Scott Freeman, and he has plenty to say about her case. "She maintains her innocence and we anticipate defending her aggressively," says Freeman, who is based in Reno, Nevada. "Obviously, she's not someone who is a criminal."

Mikovits is being charged with possessing stolen property from the Whittemore Peterson Institute for Neuro-Immune Disease (WPI), which is located on the campus of the University of Nevada, Reno. Mikovits worked at WPI for 4 years until being fired in September for insubordination. She helped bring the fledgling WPI to fame with a report she co-authored that ran in Science 2 years ago that tied a mouse retrovirus called XMRV to CFS.

According to an affidavit from a campus police officer that led to her arrest warrant, she told a lab assistant to "illegally enter her former office" and retrieve lab notebooks, a laptop computer, flash drives and correspondence that belonged to the institute. On 18 November, Mikovits, who lives in Ventura, California, was arrested and jailed there on a felony charge of being a fugitive from justice. Bail was set at $100,000 cash. "The original warrant out was extremely dramatic to have a $100,000 cash-only bail for somebody who has no history of being a risk to the community or a risk of flight," says Freeman. "So those are the very significant issues that we're going to be investigating. Why is she not being treated like everybody else?"

Mikovits made bail on 22 November, and turned over the disputed lab notebooks to the Ventura County police. She went to Reno the next day and surrendered to the Washoe County jail, which freed her on her own recognizance.

Freeman argues that, legally speaking, it's unimportant how she obtained the material in dispute. "The question is whether or not she had the criminal intent to permanently deprive the institute of property that belonged to them," he says, adding that he hopes to get the case dismissed.

Mikovits is also the subject of a civil case filed 4 November by WPI over the same property, which it says was "misappropriated." In that case, WPI alleges that she "masterminded" the theft of the property and submitted affidavits from the lab assistant who said he took the material at her behest. A civil attorney for Mikovits initially denied that she possessed the material.

Mikovits will have an arraignment hearing on 10 January, but Freeman says that he will simply request a new court date. "Part of the challenge in representing someone like her is essentially that we're taking a scientist with her extensive credentials and trying to educate her as a client on what it's like to be a defendant in a criminal case," says Freeman. "This is an area she never thought she'd be in in her life, and she's fighting for her life."

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