After months of languishing in a prison in Argentina, on November 19 Paul Frampton, a University of North Carolina physics professor, was convicted in Buenos Aires of drug trafficking.
Last January, he had been found with two kilograms of cocaine hidden in his checked luggage. He claimed he was duped by drug traffickers into carrying the case for a swimsuit model, Denise Milani, whom he thought he had met over the internet. Despite his insistences that the drugs did not belong to him, the Argentinean court sentenced him to four years and eight months in prison.
At the same time, Frampton has also been fighting against the UNC administration over the suspension of his salary since March.
Mark Williams, a mathematics professor at UNC, has been spearheading the efforts in the US to raise awareness about Frampton and secure funds for his defense. As reported in the August/September APS News, Williams helped launch the website HelpPaulFrampton.org, which attracted the support of many UNC faculty members, academics in the United States and Europe and a Nobel laureate.
“We were really surprised. We thought he had a really good chance of being acquitted,” Williams said. “We were shocked and disappointed.”
Williams spoke to Frampton briefly after the verdict was handed down. He said they planned to appeal the decision but it is unclear how long the process would take.
“On the surface he was taking it very well. He didn’t break down or anything like that,” Williams said. “Maybe it takes a while for it to sink in.”
Frampton was held at Argentina’s Villa Devoto prison for nine months before being transferred to house arrest for health reasons. The judge has allowed his sentence to be served under house arrest as well.
Frampton’s defense was that he had been tricked by drug traffickers into carrying the suitcase for them, and had no idea what was hidden in its lining. The prosecutors at the trial emphasized text messages Frampton sent to whom he thought was Milani saying that he was “worried about the sniffer dogs,” and “looking after your special little suitcase.”
Williams said that there was little context presented for the messages. In emails Frampton wrote to another friend in Canada, he made similar comments about the dogs. However he claimed he was joking in both instances.
“Only one side of the story has come out,” Williams said. “These reports are almost entirely from the point of view of the prosecutor… so far we’ve really only heard one side of the story.”
While the appeals process slowly moves forward in Argentina, Frampton and his supporters have also been fighting to get the university to reinstate his salary after it was cut off in March.
The provost of the university suspended Frampton’s salary because he would be unable to teach his class during the spring semester; however, Frampton contends that the class was canceled before he went to Argentina. He and his supporters maintain that the university superseded its own regulations when it suspended his salary without holding a hearing beforehand.
Frampton filed a complaint with the school’s grievance committee who in turn filed a report supportive of Frampton to the provost in late September. The provost decided against reinstating the salary. That decision was then appealed to the chancellor of the university, who also decided against Frampton. The decision was appealed again to the school’s board of trustees, the highest level of appeals, who will likely render a decision by the end of January.
“This whole issue is completely independent of whether Paul was convicted,” Williams said, explaining that the university acted before he was found guilty.
There is also a lawsuit pending against the university, on hold until after the decision from the board of trustees. The university is also considering whether it should fire Frampton; however, it will likely not take any action until after his appeal goes through in Argentina.
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Staff Science Writer: Michael Lucibella