UPDATED: April 26, 2023, at 4:44 p.m.
BOSTON — Former Harvard chemistry professor Charles M. Lieber was spared additional time in prison by a federal judge on Wednesday and ordered to serve six months of house arrest after he was convicted of lying to government investigators about his ties to China.
Judge Rya W. Zobel ’53 sentenced Lieber to one day in prison — time that the chemist had already served following his arrest — during a hearing at the John Joseph Moakley United States Courthouse, as well as two years of supervised release including half-a-year of house arrest and a $50,000 fine. Lieber, who appeared in the courtroom wearing a surgical mask, hugged his attorney Marc L. Mukasey after the hearing.
Lieber, 64, was also ordered to pay $33,600 in restitution to the Internal Revenue Service, an estimate for the federal tax revenue lost due to his failure to report his income from the Thousand Talents Program in 2013 and 2014. He had already paid the sum in a pre-sentence payment.
Mukasey told The Crimson after the sentencing hearing that he was “happy with the way it turned out.”
“Justice was done,” Mukasey added, before declining to comment further. Lieber declined to answer questions from a reporter as he left the courthouse.
Lieber was arrested on Harvard’s campus in 2020 and charged with making false statements to authorities investigating his relationship with the Wuhan University of Technology and involvement in the Thousand Talents Program, a Chinese government initiative to bring foreign researchers to the country.
Harvard placed Lieber on administrative leave immediately after his arrest and replaced him as chair of the Chemistry and Chemical Biology Department. Lieber was convicted of six felony charges — four tax offense charges and two counts of making false statements — following a six-day trial in December 2021. Lieber’s conviction was a key victory for the Department of Justice’s controversial China Initiative, which shuttered in 2022.
Lieber’s attorneys previously asked the court in a sentencing memorandum on Friday to spare Lieber from prison with a non-custodial sentence, citing his battle with advanced non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
Prosecutors sought a sentence of 90 days in prison followed by a year of supervised release — in addition to more than $180,000 in fines and restitution — proposing to balance Lieber’s health concerns against the severity of his offenses, according to a sentencing memo filed by the government on Sunday.
Lieber is currently in remission, according to a note from his doctor included in the defense’s sentencing memo. The note added that the median duration of remission following Lieber’s treatment is three years and his cancer remains incurable.
In February, Lieber quietly retired from his post as a University Professor, Harvard’s highest faculty rank. Prior to this, Lieber had been on paid administrative leave from the University since 2020.
During the hearing, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jason A. Casey stressed the severity of Lieber’s offenses while arguing for a prison sentence.
“He was somebody who was willing to lie and to deceive to protect the thing that mattered to him most,” Casey said. “And that was his career.”
In his 2020 post-arrest interview with the FBI, Lieber said he joined the Thousand Talents Program because he believed his involvement would help him win a Nobel Prize. He also told the FBI agents he “wasn’t completely transparent by any stretch of the imagination” when he spoke with Department of Defense investigators in 2018 about his ties to China.
A non-custodial sentence, Casey said, would send a message that “if you’re a prominent professor, you have a prominent career, and you lie and you cheat and you deceive, including cheating on your taxes over a period of years, you get a slap on the wrist.”
Mukasey defended Lieber’s character, calling him a “patriotic and loyal American” and characterizing his offenses as an “aberrational activity in an otherwise moral, humble, and just life.”
“Charlie Lieber was never chasing money or fame,” Mukasey said. “He lives a modest lifestyle.”
“He grows pumpkins and he feeds goats,” Mukasey added. “That’s who he is.”
In a statement read aloud during the hearing, Lieber apologized to his friends, family, and former students for the “horrific experience” of his trial and conviction. His remarks at the sentencing hearing were some of his most extensive public comments since his 2020 arrest.
“The last three-plus years have been a truly horrific experience for me and my wife and my children, and I regret the things that brought me here,” Lieber said. “As you have heard, I have lost my job, my career, and my freedom — and I sincerely hope I will not lose what is left of my life given my poor health.”
“I hope that in the future — and this is whatever transpires — that I am again able with whatever life I have left to help young scientists learn to be successful, encourage and support them in their careers, and contribute to science that benefits humanity,” Lieber added.
Lieber displayed little emotion throughout the sentencing hearing, with his gaze cast down on the table in front of him. The only exception came when Lieber broke down in tears while apologizing to his late mother.
“It brings me great sadness, and tears often, that I couldn’t be with her as I should’ve at the end as a result of my actions,” he said, weeping. “Your memory is still very strong and dear to me, Mom. I will forever love you.”
During the hearing, Mukasey said that despite Lieber’s cancer currently being in remission, his immunocompromised state could make any exposure to disease in prison deadly.
“In prison, he will be a sitting duck for disease,” Mukasey told the judge. “In prison, he will not have access to medical care that he may need on a day-to-day basis.”
Casey said imprisonment was unlikely to pose a health risk for the former professor, arguing that any sentence could be “structured around the defendant’s medical treatment” and noting low Covid-19 rates in federal prisons.
Mukasey, however, disputed Casey’s characterization of Lieber’s current medical state.
“The case the government just laid out against professor Lieber is callous, it’s misleading, it’s naive, and frankly, it’s dangerous to his health,” he said.
“They sort of sound like, ‘He had a bad cold, he got over it, and now he’s free to go out and play with his friends,’” Mukasey added. “That is not the situation that he’s in.”
Casey clarified to the court that the government’s assessment was largely based on the note from Lieber’s doctor, Harvard Medical School instructor and oncologist Austin I. Kim.
Kim wrote that the effects of Lieber’s cancer treatment on his immune system “cannot be understated” and that he is “at risk of more severe and potentially life-threatening bacterial and viral respiratory infections, including COVID-19.”
Lieber’s attorneys also requested that the court not impose a fine, calling the government’s request for a $150,000 penalty “draconian” and insisting that Lieber was sufficiently punished through the financial consequences of his conviction, including the loss of his job at Harvard.
But Casey maintained throughout the sentencing hearing that Lieber should not be sentenced any differently by the court because he previously held a prominent position at Harvard, arguing that the University’s trust in Lieber “makes him more culpable.”
“The defendant can’t blatantly abuse the privileges that were extended to him by lying and then ask for leniency because those privileges have rightfully been revoked or suspended,” Casey said.
“As the court knows full well, it can’t be that the professor at Harvard is treated differently from the janitor at Harvard,” Casey added.
Mukasey also took aim at Harvard, criticizing the University for retaining a “fancy” lawyer for itself while not advising Lieber to seek counsel after learning that federal investigators were looking into the professor’s conduct.
“Harvard deceived him,” Mukasey said. “Harvard failed to tell him to get a lawyer when this whole thing started, and Harvard is still taking advantage of the research that he did.”
University spokesperson Jason A. Newton declined to comment on Lieber’s sentence and Mukasey’s criticism of Harvard during the sentencing hearing.
Mukasey said the case would deter academic misconduct at Harvard and nationwide, another reason to not impose a severe sentence on Lieber.
“They’ve all gotten the message,” Mukasey said. “They all see him sitting here. They all see him having lost his job. They all see him ruined.”