Heritage: A Case Study in Overcriminalization


When Steven Kurtz awoke one morning in his Buffalo home to find his wife, Hope, unresponsive, he rushed to dial 911 and summon paramedics. It was May 11, 2004. He had no reason to expect that his wife’s fatal heart attack and his call to the authorities would mark the beginning of a four-year odyssey to the belly of the criminal-justice system.

The paramedics and police detectives who arrived at Kurtz’s home that morning to tend to his wife found more than they expected. Off the upstairs bedroom was a small table on which was arranged a home laboratory containing Petri dishes and various items of lab equipment. The detectives spent hours– nearly the entire day–interrogating Kurtz about the equipment and his relationship with his wife and then called in local health department officials, who ran tests on the cultures in the Petri dishes. They were harmless.

Unsatisfied with Kurtz’s answers, however, and still suspicious of the lab, the police decided to call in federal authorities. The next day, three or four vehicles came screeching up to Kurtz as he walked across a funeral home’s parking lot, intending to make arrangements for his wife’s cremation. It was the FBI. Kurtz was detained on suspicion of bioterrorism and held for 22 hours.

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