BOSTON — Attorneys for Harvard professor Charles M. Lieber argued in court on Thursday that the renowned chemist’s December conviction should be overturned, alleging that the government failed to sufficiently prove its case.
Lieber was found guilty in December of making false statements to federal investigators about his involvement with a China-sponsored talent recruitment program and for failing to disclose income he received from the initiative on his tax returns. Lieber’s attorneys filed a motion in February for him to be acquitted or granted a new trial.
Marc L. Mukasey, Lieber’s lead defense attorney, argued in his opening remarks before Judge Rya W. Zobel ’53 that the Department of Justice’s move to shutter its controversial China Initiative — under which Lieber’s charges were first brought — should be taken into account when reviewing the guilty verdict.
“Right after our trial, the Department of Justice shut down the China Initiative,” Mukasey said. “No one seems to care that Lieber remains a victim of this twisted, misguided program.”
Mukasey also took aim at Harvard during his remarks, claiming that the University “left Professor Lieber for the slaughter” by not providing an attorney during his 2018 interview with administrators following an inquiry by the National Institutes of Health.
Lieber attorney Kenneth A. Caruso said that in both instances where prosecutors alleged Lieber made false statements, the government failed to prove that he concealed the truth.
Caruso said a letter sent by Harvard to the NIH did not accurately represent the “very qualified statement” Lieber made to administrators, and that Lieber’s statement to Department of Defense investigators that he “wasn’t sure” how China categorized him was literally true.
“Nobody’s a mind reader,” Caruso said. “No one can be sure of somebody else’s state of mind.”
Caruso also claimed the government had not substantiated a connection between the Thousand Talents Program and China’s government, which he argued was necessary to prove Lieber’s statements false.
Attorney Donald C. Lockhart, speaking for the government, dismissed the defense’s assertions, citing emails between Lieber and a former postdoctoral student in which Lieber was informed of his approval to join the Thousand Talents Program and provided with a contract for his work with the TTP.
Lockhart also noted that during Lieber’s DOD interview, he told investigators that he was aware of the TTP and specifically mentioned its association with the Chinese government. Lockhart also quoted Lieber’s 2020 FBI interview, in which the chemist said that in working for the TTP, “you’re paid a salary by China.”
“None of these things depended on Professor Lieber knowing the state of mind of China,” Lockhart said.
Prosecutors also took issue with the defense’s argument that the letter to the NIH failed to represent Lieber’s statement, noting that Lieber was given ample opportunity to prepare for the interview with Harvard officials, as well as the “luxury” of reviewing the draft letter before it was sent out.
“He very clearly denies it and goes on at some length concerning the denial,” Lockhart said.
The hearing concluded after more than an hour of argument. Zobel will now consider the defense’s motion and announce a decision at a later date.
Toward the end of the hearing, there was a brief miscommunication between Zobel and Lockhart as the prosecutor began a rebuttal to the defense.
“This is not the movie awards, right?” Zobel quipped to chuckles throughout the courtroom, apparently referencing the altercation between Will Smith and Chris Rock at the Oscars.
—Crimson staff writer Brandon L. Kingdollar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @newskingdollar.