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Zaosong Zheng, a former researcher at Harvard-affiliated Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, was sentenced on Wednesday for lying to federal agents in connection with his attempt to take cancer research to China.
U.S. District Court Judge Denise J. Casper sentenced Zheng to time served — approximately 87 days — and three years of supervised release, as well as ordering his removal from the United States.
Zheng’s lawyers wrote in a Tuesday sentencing memo that Zheng has tickets to return to China Wednesday and has agreed to not return to the U.S. for at least 10 years.
Zheng — a 31-year-old who arrived in the United States from China in 2018 — pleaded guilty to lying to customs officials last month. On December 10, 2019, Zheng was arrested at Boston Logan International Airport after customs officials found vials of biological material in a sock packed in his suitcase. Beth Israel fired Zheng following his arrest.
Customs officials had flagged Zheng as high-risk for smuggling biological material; while searching his luggage, they found the vials, allegedly containing material from a Beth Israel laboratory. During the search, Zheng repeatedly denied carrying the research materials, according to an affidavit. Later, he said the vials had “nothing to do with his research” and that a friend had provided him with the vials.
Eventually, Zheng confessed to stealing the material from his lab and said he planned to take it to his own laboratory in China in order to publish research in his name.
As part of his December plea deal, prosecutors agreed to drop the charge alleging Zheng attempted to smuggle goods out of the country. Federal statute allows sentencing of up to five years in prison and a fine of $250,000 for the remaining false statements charge.
Norman S. Zalkind, one of Zheng’s attorneys, said he viewed Wednesday’s sentencing as “partly a position the government is taking about Chinese scientists at this time” and contested the value of the biological material with which Zheng was caught.
“The only thing that [Zheng] did wrong was not tell the truth to custom agents at the airport and nothing else,” Zalkind said. “The government has agreed to that, but they keep saying that he stole something.”
“I think, if he was an American citizen, I don’t think any of the punishment would have happened,” Zalkind added.
David Duncan, one of Zheng’s other attorneys, pointed out in an email that Zheng took DNA expression vectors from the laboratory, which he wrote “can be made inexpensively by someone with limited biomedical training.”
His attorneys wrote in the sentencing memo that Zheng has not been convicted of either stealing or smuggling the materials.
“The government, in detention proceedings, made much of the allegation that the biological materials in Dr. Zheng’s suitcase were ‘stolen’ from the lab he worked in,” they wrote. “In its Sentencing Memorandum, the government now agrees that the materials have ‘little value’ and are easily replicated – indeed they suggest that Dr. Zheng made them.”
“He was never charged with theft of anything, and he denies that he had any purpose in taking this material with him other than to continue the research he was conducting as part of the Beth Israel/[Deaconess] lab he was employed by,” they added.
Zheng’s arrest formed part of a recent crackdown on intellectual property theft, which also has included the arrest of former Harvard Chemistry chair Charles M. Lieber on allegations he lied to federal authorities about his research affiliations with China. Lieber has pleaded not guilty to the charges and intends to bring the case to trial.
—Staff writer Meera S. Nair can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
—Staff writer Andy Z. Wang can be reached at email@example.com.
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