Paul Frampton, the particle physicist from the University of North Carolina (UNC), has been sentenced to four years and eight months in detention after being found guilty of drug-smuggling charges. Frampton, 68, was arrested at Buenos Aires airport on 23 January after authorities found 2 kg of cocaine in his checked luggage – drugs that he insists were not his. He was convicted on 21 November by a judge at a court in Buenos Aires after three days of hearings.

Frampton, a British-born US citizen with a DPhil from the University of Oxford, got into trouble after flying from North Carolina to Bolivia where he was expecting to meet 32-year-old Czech-born lingerie model Denise Milani, who he thought he had been chatting with on the internet. Frampton says he was instead met by a man who asked him to take what was supposedly Milani's suitcase to Buenos Aires, where she would then meet him.

When Milani did not turn up – and there has been no suggestion that she knew her persona was being used – Frampton then tried to board a plane back to the US but was arrested after airport-security officials discovered the cocaine inside a false lining of the suitcase. Frampton claimed that he was innocent of the drug-smuggling charges, which carry a maximum sentence of 16 years, insisting that the cocaine was built into the luggage without his knowledge.

State of shock

After his arrest, Frampton spent 282 days languishing in Buenos Aires' notorious Villa Devoto prison. Despite facing health issues while locked up, he continued to supervise his two current PhD students by phone and even posted preprints on arXiv – adding "University Center of Devoto" to his affiliation – and refereed journal articles. By the end of October, there was a sliver of hope as Frampton was released from jail early and placed under house arrest after his lawyers persuaded a judge that his respiratory condition was worsening.

Now that he has been convicted it is not clear whether Frampton will spend the remaining sentence in prison or under house arrest. "As you might imagine I am in a state of shock and disbelief," Frampton told the North Carolina News & Observer after the conviction. "This is a gross miscarriage of justice. If this had happened in the US a jury would have obviously acquitted me."

According to the News & Observer, during the three-day trial, a prosecutor showed the court calculations – made in Frampton's handwriting – of the drugs' value. The prosecution also presented texts and e-mails Frampton thought he was sending to Milani the day before his arrest, which apparently said he was "worried about the sniffer dogs" and that he was "looking after [the] special little suitcase".

Coming out in support

Earlier this year a group of physicists set up a website – helppaulframpton.org– to support Frampton's case and raise money for lawyer fees. Around a dozen physicists also submitted separate character references for Frampton and more than 80 people, including Nobel laureate Sheldon Glashow, signed an open letter to the UNC faculty in support of Frampton and the reinstating of his $106,835 salary, which has been stopped by the university. Indeed, a few weeks before he was sentenced, Frampton had claimed that his salary should be doubled based on his citation record and how much fellow highly cited physicists are remunerated.

It is not clear whether Frampton will appeal the sentence or what action the UNC will now take. Frampton will have the option of applying for deportation back to the US in 2014.