APS News


Quantum Justice

As this is being written, the physicist Wen Ho Lee, a naturalized American citizen, sits in a New Mexico jail, having been refused bail lest he somehow reveal to a confederate the whereabouts of seven missing tapes that may or may not still exist, the classified contents of which he may or may not want to transmit to a foreign power.

Less than a year ago, Lee was a respected long-term employee of Los Alamos National Laboratory, living what to all appearances was a normal family life in a suburbs of Los Alamos. Since then he has been fired by Secretary of Energy Richardson, and, after months of innuendo, has finally been indicted for downloading classified material and transferring it onto ten tapes, seven of which are still missing.

The background to all this is the fact that China seems to have acquired secret information related to our latest missiles and warheads, and there is the suspicion that that information was leaked from Los Alamos, where allegations of lax security have been enough to turn even such sober souls as former Republican Senator Warren Rudman virtually apoplectic.(Rudman was appointed by President Clinton to chair a panel that investigated security at our national weapons laboratories). Early on, Wen Ho Lee was fingered as the most likely source of the leaks, although he has not been charged with espionage, presumably from lack of evidence. I think it is fair to say that without the concern over espionage and the need to find the responsible party, Wen Ho Lee would never have been investigated, much less charged with the offenses that have him now languishing in prison awaiting trial.

We don't know whether or not Lee is guilty of espionage. But in either case, justice is not being served. If he is guilty, he is getting off altogether too lightly: he is facing lesser, although still serious charges, when he in fact has committed a heinous offense. It is like sending Al Capone up on tax evasion charges. If he is convicted, he could be out of jail sooner than would be warranted by his grievous betrayal of the nation's trust.

On the other hand, if he is innocent of espionage, his life has been unfairly ruined by political intrigue and media attention. Mere acquittal of the charges against him cannot possibly restore what he has lost. Worse yet, he may be convicted, when his motives may have been innocent and his actions no worse than those of many of his colleagues.

The reader may think that this case is unique and that Lee's misfortune is the price we have to pay for our national security. But similar things happen in other high-profile cases. In December 1998, a Yale senior, Suzanne Jovin, was found, dying from 17 stab wounds, in an upscale New Haven neighborhood about a mile and a half from the Yale campus. Suspicion quickly focused on James Van de Velde, a lecturer in political science who had been Jovin's senior thesis advisor and who lived not far from the crime scene. When the police described Van de Velde as being in a "pool of suspects" (whose other members were never identified) Yale reacted by first relieving Van de Velde of his teaching duties in the spring of 1999, and then not renewing his contract for the following year. If he is guilty of murder, Van de Velde, who has yet to be charged with anything, has escaped incredibly lightly. But if he is not guilty, his career has been terminated and his reputation destroyed totally undeservedly.

The circumstances imposed on Lee and Van de Velde bear the same relation to an ideal system of justice that a classical superposition bears to a quantum one. They are victims of a system in which those under suspicion of serious criminal activity are forced to endure what amounts to a classical superposition of innocence and guilt: they experience some, but not all, of the adverse consequences of their putative guilt. The ideal situation, which I unfortunately have no idea how to attain, is that they should be in a quantum superposition of these two states. A measurement (i.e. a verdict) would force them into one or the other of the possible eigenstates; but the nightmarish limbo that they now inhabit would not exist, just as for a spin-1/2 system there is nothing between spin up and spin down.

-Alan Chodos

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette