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Thursday, March 3, 2011

Utah jury finds activist Tim DeChristopher guilty of interfering with an onshore oil and gas leasing act and making a false representation to the federal government

Jury finds activist Tim DeChristopher guilty of both charges

SALT LAKE CITY — After nearly five hours of deliberation, a jury found Timothy DeChristopher guilty Thursday of two counts in his federal trial.

The eight-man, four-woman jury found the environmental activist guilty of interfering with an onshore oil and gas leasing act and making a false representation to the federal government.

Upon hearing the verdict, supporters and protesters outside of the downtown federal courthouse stood arm in arm, their hands clasped as they sang and swayed. Many of them had tears streaming down their faces.

As DeChristopher left the courthouse, he was met with applause. He told the crowd that the powers within the courthouse tried to convince him he was a little finger that could be broken. But the crowd of supporters showed he was a finger on a hand forming a fist, which is not a symbol of violence, but that "we will not be divided and we will not back down," he said.

"You've shown that your power will not be intimidated by any power!" he said to supporters.

Logan Froerer, a supporter of DeChristopher who was present for every day of the trial, said he and his fellow protesters will continue to fight for their cause.

"We want to continue the conversation begun this week," he said. "There was information that was withheld and we shone a light on the government, on the fossil fuel industry. We will take on any sense of injustice that threatens individuals and people in the world."

DeChristopher supporter Lauren Wood, of Salt Lake City, said she and many others believe the jury didn't get "the full breadth of informtation" in the trial, namely that the auction was later deemed invalid by Ken Salazar, U.S. secretary of the Interior, and that DeChristopher could have paid for the leases that day.

"He was never allowed to pay for them, because he was not an insider of the gas and oil industry," she said.

But Wood reiterated that the trial and larger court case has united people in a movement that will continue, despite the verdict.

"Tim galvanized all of us and the fact that he was found guilty hit me like a ton of bricks," she tearfully said. "This has galvanized change in the community here in Utah and across the nation."

DeChristopher will be sentenced June 23. He faces up to 10 years in prison and $750,000 in fines. However, U.S. Attorney for Utah Carlie Christensen said her office will not seek the maximum 10-year sentence. She said she was not prepared to comment on what penalty prosecutors will seek.

Christensen complimented prosecutors and investigators who worked on the case and said they were all "very pleased with the jury's verdict."

She outlined the various lawful actions DeChristopher could have taken to oppose the lease, from holding a protest to joining in pending legal action.

"Mr. DeChristopher did not do any of those things," Christensen said. "Instead, he sabotaged a lawful auction. ... He had neither the intention or financial resources to pay for those (14) leases."

In closing arguments, John Huber, the lead prosecutor in the case, told the jury DeChristopher "chose a path of illegality" but caused turmoil and confusion.

He said despite what DeChristopher's defense team would have them believe, DeChristopher acted deliberately and knowingly to break the law.

"He alone chose to cross the boundary of others and the government of the United States."
Referencing back to DeChristopher's own words to a federal agent, Huber reminded the jury that the defendant said, "I decided I could live with the consequences."

Huber said DeChristopher even went so far as to abandon his own defense when he took the stand and admitted that he played along as a bidder, knew he would get in trouble, and knew there would be consequences — despite an opposite portrayal by his attorney of a man confused by the whole bidding process.

Huber likened DeChristopher's behavior to that of a phony restaurant patron who walks into a business on a Friday night and orders hamburgers and other items that constitute 25 percent of the evening's proceeds, "then he walks out the door and he throws the food in the garbage."

In a somewhat dramatic display using props, Huber said the case was also about numbers and what they meant at the end of the day. He held a flash card that had the number 70, another card had the number $1.8 million and finally zero down.

In an equally dramatic closing, defense attorney Ron Yengich urged the jury to remember foremost what DeChristopher's state of mind was at the time the actual crime was committed.

He pointed out the government in its presentation of the case relied heavily on DeChristopher's demeanor and the time following the action, not the day of the actual event. 

In doing so, he said the government "has not been able to lift off him the cloak of the presumption of innocence."

He reminded the jury that DeChristopher said he went to the auction that day without knowing what he planned to do other than to possibly demonstrate outside.

"He never had any intention, any desire to bid when he went to the auction," Yengich said.
Even the government's own evidence pointed to an acknowledgment that "they directed him to the point where he picked up the bidder card," the defense attorney said.

While the prosecution paraded out a series of statements DeChristopher made to the media regarding his participation in the audience, Yengich said those statements are not what the case is about. He said the case is about who "DeChristopher was at the time, not what he co-opted after and not what he wanted to become. … You do not see someone who planned anything, you see a young man playing a game."

Toward the end of his closing, Yengich appeared to get a bit choked up when he told the jury he had been in the courtroom for 36 years on a variety of cases, a career he said had been taxing at times.

"I believe in what we do. I believe in what we do because it isn't easy. It shouldn't be easy to convict somebody of a crime because your government says so."

He said all DeChristopher wanted to do was "give some hope to people."

And now it's up to the jury, "whether the spur of the moment desire for hope is a federal crime."

Thursday's proceedings were punctuated with a bit of a scare after it was revealed that a male member of the jury had an inadvertent conversation with a reporter. The brief conversation, as explained by Judge Dee Benson, happened after the reporter's cell phone was mistakenly ferried to the jury room along with other jurors' phones.  Borrowing another phone, the reporter called his cell phone and talked to the juror about the device's location. 
Benson said that was the extent of the conversation, and the phone was hastily returned to the member of the media. Benson said he was satisfied that nothing "untoward had happened."

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