22 Years for Free-speech Advocates
by Budgerigar

Some have called it a travesty of justice. Others have remarked that it reflects a colder, gloomier, post-9/11 US. But standing in New Jersey's Trenton Federal Courthouse on September 12, with more than 200 supporters beside me and the six defendants in front of me, the message could not be more clear: run an effective activist campaign, and you will be vilified, criminalized and imprisoned.

The sentences handed down to six animal rights activists— Jake Conroy, four years; Darius Fulmer, one year; Lauren Gazzola, four years and four months; Josh Harper, three years; Kevin Kjonaas, six years; and Andy Stepanian, three years—mirrored the absurdity of the entire criminal proceeding. Three of the defendants— Kevin, Lauren, and Jake—were charged with conspiracy to commit interstate stalking and with three counts each of interstate stalking. The charges came from the defendants allegedly organizing demonstrations in residential areas and maintaining a website (hence the "interstate" part) that published the names and addresses of those involved in the vivisection industry.

Each of the defendants was convicted of violating a law enacted in 1992, strengthened in 2002 and not used until now—the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act. This controversial and open-ended piece of legislation criminalizes any individual who exposes acts of cruelty, causes more than $10,000 in lost revenue due to protesting or otherwise disrupts the regular business of an "animal enterprise." Aside from the draconian nature of the law, it also has chilling implications for freedom of speech. Hypothetically, it could be used to imprison a protester who prevents the sale of a single $10,000 fur coat.

Furthermore, the legislation states that anyone who "causes the loss of any property (including animals or records) used by the animal enterprise, and thereby causes economic damage exceeding $10,000 to that enterprise, or conspires to do so" has committed an "animal enterprise terrorism offense."

The inversion and perversion of logic that allows one to label the liberation of animals an act of "terrorism" is so apparent that it does not warrant discussion. However, the clause "or conspires to do so" leads to the question of what is a conspiracy? In an intentionally vague view of the law, a conspiracy is defined as "a combination for an unlawful purpose." Orwell could not have phrased it better. The supreme irony of this case rests in the fact that these activists were convicted of conspiracy to damage the profits of an animal enterprise, but not of actually damaging it. Even so, the ever-so-honorable judge ordered the defendants to pay a total of $1,000,001 in restitution fees.

In this case, the animal enterprise was Huntingdon Life Sciences (HLS), an animal testing company with locations in New Jersey and England that kills 500 animals each day. In a series of six different undercover investigations, HLS has been caught punching beagle puppies in the face, cutting up primates without anesthetics, leaving test subjects to wallow in pools of their own blood and feces, and numerous other abuses that violate even the most basic protections afforded to the animals under the Animal Welfare Act.

This compromises not only animal life, but the data that is supposed to save human life as well. It should come as no surprise that the companies who hire HLS, such as Eli Lilly, No-vartis, and GlaxoSmithKline, produce drugs that have been linked to suicide, heart failure, asthma attacks and death. HLS effectively sells results to the highest bidder, with no regard for life, human or non-human. They are dealing with faulty science, and they know it—80 percent of drugs tested on animals fail the first time that humans are exposed to them.

Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (SHAC) was formed in 2001 with one simple goal in mind: to shut down HLS. SHAC's strategy has been simple yet effective: target those who do business with the company and its investors, shareholders, suppliers, customers and market makers. Convince them that it's a bad idea to do business with HLS. Provide activists with resources that allow them to empower themselves and to organize locally against HLS. Provide an electronic forum for information about the lab, its history and the campaign against it. With these goals in mind, SHAC has conducted a broad-based grassroots campaign in opposition to the lab.

And it has worked like a charm. HLS has been delisted from the London Stock Exchange, the New York Stock Exchange and even the Over The Counter Bulletin Board—mockingly called the "penny stocks." In 2004 alone, more than 100 suppliers to the laboratory canceled their contracts. These included imperative services such as gas, security, animal waste disposal and courier services. Is it any wonder HLS would want to get rid of these pesky activists? With results like these, it was only a matter of time before HLS called in its government cronies.

One would be hard-pressed to find another case quite like this one. From the very beginning, the cards were stacked in favor of the prosecution. During jury selection, potential jurors were asked about their jobs and if they had ever attended a protest to weed out jurors who might in any way be sympathetic to the struggle against animal abuse. Judge Thompson also limited the defendants' preemptory challenges during jury selection to seven and failed to dismiss jurors who worked for companies that had been the subject of the campaign to close HLS. The federal government also had the advantage of endless people power to work on the case, as well as months of wiretaps, emails, and Internet postings, which could easily be misconstrued.

The defense was impaired from the beginning because the judge ruled that the defendants could not introduce their own computer expert (but the government could introduce its computer expert) and that there could be no anti-vivisection expert (but that government witnesses could carry on about the benefits of animal research). Judge Thompson routinely dismissed the defendants' motions, while approving every flimsy piece of evidence presented by the prosecution.

Every action against HLS was propounded as proof of the defendants' guilt, even when the defendants themselves were not involved at all. HLS director Brian Cass even testified about the campaign in England! The SHAC website was repeatedly cited as evidence against the defendants because it publicized information about HLS and its affiliates. After three days of deliberation, the jury came back with guilty verdicts on all counts.

The defendants will soon begin long prison sentences, but the fight is not over. Their lawyers have filed a motion to appeal. The appeal process is a lengthy operation that will likely cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, which means that Jake, Darius, Lauren, Josh, Kevin and Andy need assistance from the community to pay for their legal fees. Additionally, they will need your letters of support.

On October 3, Andy was the first defendant to turn himself in to the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn. He will remain there for up to 120 days awaiting a long term prison assignment. You can write to him at Andrew Lloyd Stepanian #26399-050, MDC Brooklyn, Metropolitan Detention Center, FOB 329002, Brooklyn, NY 11232, USA. His support group asks that you stick to simple cards and letters without stickers, gel-pens, or a lot of decoration.

For more information about the case, and to find out how you can help, visit The SHAC 7.

© Earth First! Journal November-December 2006