January 24, 2012, by Patrick Shea
When attorney Patrick Shea watched a U.S. Marshal handcuff his client, Tim DeChristopher, his emotions boiled over. “It’s tragic,” he writes in this special piece for Orion‘s blog, “that when we need our best and brightest to work on seemingly intractable problems…we put them in prison.” Read more about Tim in the January/February 2012 issue of Orion, and join Patrick Shea and others to discuss the future of civil disobedience during Orion‘s next live web event. Register here.
Representing Tim DeChristopher was no easy task. As a client, he was often smarter than his defense team—and he did not want to hear about the legal and procedural niceties of a federal criminal case. He wanted to tell his story to a jury of his peers.
Tim’s trial began on my sixty-third birthday. During the jury’s eleven-hour deliberation, they struggled with their desire to find Tim innocent—but were fearful, according to one juror, that Judge Dee Benson would punish them if they reached such a verdict. I believe that if Tim and his defense team had been able to articulate his intent and the necessity of quick action on climate change, the jury would have reached a different verdict. After all, Tim’s actions were driven in part by the necessity of stopping climate change.
Instead, my birthday gift was to witness a miscarriage of justice, fairness, and what I believed America stood for.
During the trial, we were prohibited from explaining Tim’s intent to the jury; we were prohibited from describing for the jury the reality of climate change; and we were prohibited from mentioning the twenty-nine other bidders who had successfully won their bids and then failed to pay millions to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). During closing arguments, we were even prohibited from discussing the money saved after Secretary Salazar’s determination in 2009 to terminate all leases from the December 2008 auction.
At his sentencing hearing in June 2011, the prosecution, defense counsel, and Tim stated their respective positions. Judge Benson had the last word. From his bench, Benson criticized Tim’s use of the First Amendment during the judicial process and BLM auction, and he indicated that if Tim had remained silent he probably wouldn’t be sitting in court. Benson rambled on about how the “system” was just, about how there are forums for dissent without disruption. Nowhere did he mention his communication with Senator Orrin Hatch, his former boss and patron (Hatch appointed Benson to U.S. Attorney for Utah), who had recommended Tim be sentenced to four years in prison.
Immediately after the sentence was announced—two years in federal prison—the U.S. Marshal approached the defense counsel table and instructed Tim to take off his jacket and place his hands behind his back. Not more than a minute after Benson’s “last words,” Tim was whisked out of the courtroom and into a holding cell. His supporters in the courtroom erupted.
It’s tragic that when we need our best and brightest to work on seemingly intractable problems like climate change and economic inequality we put them in prison. Tim, one of the brightest and most dedicated students I have ever met, sits in a barracks wasting time. His days are monotonous; he exercises his spirit by reading and corresponding with his supporters, wondering, “What happened to America?” Write to him. He needs your support.
FCI Herlong, SATELLITE CAMP
Federal Correctional Institution
P.O. Box 800
Herlong, California 96113
Visit bidder70.org for further details.
Patrick Shea is a private practicing attorney and Associate Research Professor of Biology at the University of Utah. On February 21, join Shea and Heidi Boghosian, executive director of the National Lawyers Guild, for a live web discussion of how the justice system punishes protest, from Occupiers to climate justice camps. Register here.