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Former Harvard Professor Charles Lieber Asks for No Prison Time Ahead of Sentencing, Citing Cancer Battle

Harvard professor Charles M. Lieber, left, exits the John J. Moakley United States Courthouse in December 2021 alongside his attorney, Marc L. Mukasey.
Harvard professor Charles M. Lieber, left, exits the John J. Moakley United States Courthouse in December 2021 alongside his attorney, Marc L. Mukasey. By Mayesha R. Soshi
By Miles J. Herszenhorn and Elias J. Schisgall, Crimson Staff Writers

As convicted ex-Harvard professor Charles M. Lieber awaits his sentencing hearing on Wednesday for lying to federal investigators about his ties to China, his attorneys asked a federal judge last week to spare him from prison, while prosecutors requested a 90-day sentence.

Lieber was arrested on Harvard’s campus in January 2020 and charged with lying to government authorities about his involvement with the Wuhan University of Technology and the Thousand Talents Program — a Chinese government program to attract foreign research talent to China. A federal jury found Lieber guilty of all felony charges following a six-day trial.

Lieber previously served as a University Professor, Harvard’s highest faculty rank, before quietly retiring from the role on Feb. 1. He also served as a former chair of the Chemistry and Chemical Biology department, before he was replaced by professors Theodore A. Betley and Daniel Kahne shortly after his arrest.

In a court filing Friday, Lieber’s attorneys cited his late-stage lymphoma diagnosis in their request for a non-custodial sentence.

“For the last three years, and as described in detail below, Professor Lieber has been largely confined to his home and hospitals, fighting for his life on multiple fronts,” his attorneys wrote. “Professor Lieber hopes the Court will assess the complete picture of who he is and how he has lived his life and will have mercy on him.”

In their court filing, Lieber’s attorneys also included a January 2023 letter from his doctor, Harvard Medical School instructor Austin I. Kim. The letter stated that Lieber achieved a “complete remission” after receiving cancer treatment last fall, although his illness is “still considered to be an incurable lymphoma.”

“As long as his lymphoma remains in remission, he will not require any additional treatment for his follicular lymphoma,” Kim wrote in the letter. “However, median duration of remission following CAR T-cell therapy for relapsed follicular lymphoma is currently around 3 years.”

In a filing on Sunday, government prosecutors asked the court to sentence Lieber to 90 days in prison followed by a year of supervised release, in addition to payments totaling more than $180,000.

The prosecutors wrote that though Lieber’s involvement in the Chinese talent acquisition program was not illegal, his “chronic lies” to government investigators warranted a “weighty punishment.”

“Lieber purposely — and repeatedly — lied to government agents about his ties to WUT and TTP in response to direct, unambiguous questions; and he purposely concealed from tax authorities the hundreds of thousands of dollars paid to him by WUT,” they wrote, adding that his crimes constituted a “prolonged and purposeful pattern of deceit and a profound lack of respect for the law.”

In the memo, prosecutors wrote Lieber’s health informed their recommendation for a “below-Guideline” sentence, but said it “does not preclude him from serving a period of incarceration.”

They added that Lieber’s actions were part of a “deliberate, sustained effort to lie and deceive” for personal gain.

“They were not the product of a single misguided act or one rash decision, but rather a concerted and sustained effort over a period of years to downplay his relationship with WUT, cover up completely his affiliation with the Thousand Talents Program, and secretly line his own pockets,” prosecutors wrote.

Lieber’s lawyers, however, argued in their Friday court filing that the negative impact on Lieber’s career served as punishment enough, and that the conviction was already successful in deterring similar offenses.

“His reputation is in tatters,” the attorneys wrote. “Put simply, the facts and circumstances that led to this case will never happen again. Courts around the country have recognized these kinds of consequences as punishment.”

They added that Lieber is “filled with remorse and shame for the actions that led to this case.”

“His conduct was completely opposed to the integrity with which he has conducted himself as a researcher and scientist throughout his long career,” they wrote.

Attorneys for Lieber also cast doubt on the China Initiative, a now-defunct campaign by the Department of Justice launched by the Trump administration to counter academic espionage with a focus on China. Lieber’s conviction marked a key victory for the short-lived program, which came to an end just over two months after his trial.

“Due to the public attention drawn by the DOJ’s China Initiative, Professor Lieber received and continues to receive countless threats, some of which have been reported to the U.S. Attorney’s Office and other law enforcement agencies,” the attorneys wrote. “These threats and the public condemnation will punish Professor Lieber for the rest of his life.”

His attorneys also included more than 100 letters from friends, family, colleagues, and former students testifying to Lieber’s character, including at least 24 current and three former Harvard faculty members. The letter writers include CCB Director of Undergraduate Studies Gregory C. “Gregg” Tucci; Kahne, one of the professors who succeeded Lieber as CCB chair; and three Nobel laureates — Harvard Medical School professor Jack W. Szostak and chemistry professors emeriti Elias James “E.J.” Corey and Dudley R. Herschbach.

In his letter, Szostak wrote that Lieber was motivated by “a sense of duty to his colleagues” and aimed to “further collaborations and the spirit of free exchange of knowledge.”

“I believe that he had the same attitude at an international level, where he was very active in supporting his friends, colleagues and former students worldwide and notably in China,” Szostak wrote. “I do not believe that he was ever motivated by personal gain, but on the contrary went to great lengths to help anyone who shared his excitement about the exploration of new directions in fundamental scientific research.”

—Staff writer Miles J. Herszenhorn can be reached at miles.herszenhorn@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @MHerszenhorn.

—Staff writer Elias J. Schisgall can be reached at elias.schisgall@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @eschisgall.

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