Defending Tim DeChristopher

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.

Tim DeChristopher
Federal Correctional Institution
P.O. Box 800
Herlong, California 96113

Visit 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.


  1. Dee Benson did not preside over anything remotely resembling justice.

    Very Sad Mr. Benson. Time to go away.

  2. Tim’s attorneys did their best under ridiculous restrictions. This was my first witness of a trial, and it opened my eyes to the injustice of our legal system. We envision America as a place of justice…it isn’t. I am never sure if I am shedding tears for Tim or for all of us in this country who unmistakably believe we are safe in a just society. I was devastated and will never forget that trial or the monstrous miscarriage of justice done by that court. We are all in prison.

  3. Though the reality of this:
    “We were prohibited from explaining Tim’s intent to the jury;…from describing for the jury the reality of climate change; & we were prohibited from mentioning the 29 other bidders who had successfully won their bids & then failed to pay millions to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM)”

    was relatively well-known, the rationale thoroughly escapes me. What is the law/reasoning determining how little can really be made known to the jury regarding the intention, beliefs & right to speech of the accused? I am profoundly impressed at Tim’s integrity in honoring these ridiculous restraints. A lesser soul might have blurted out his intentions.

  4. Can jury nullification be mentioned during defense if the judge does not specifically state that it cannot? I’m not a lawyer, just curious.

    I will write to Mr. DeChristopher


  5. You state: “After all, Tim’s actions were driven in part by the necessity of stopping climate change.” If Tim believes this, he’s likely wrong–as it’s likely that we’ve passed a point of no return regarding “global warming.” James Lovelock predicts that by the end of this century there may be only 500 million humans–about 7% of the current 7 billion. Our only hope is adaptation–trying to, at least.

  6. Would it be convenient to have a generic brief of points and authorities for civil disobedience actions to be defended Pro se and if so would you please help me to assemble it.
    I appreciate greatly your help in this.
    My internet access is limited to the local public library and will not be able to view the live webcast at 7pm wednesday so please, if you are able, refer me to writen web content and any other information such as land line phone numbers, email addresses etc. . .

  7. Is there no further legal remedy to this sentence for Tim?…Every day in the news we are faced with stories of damage to wildlife,to sea otters,to whales,because of environmental degradation.New permits for oil drilling in the gulf have been agreed to by American and Mexican governments.Since there was no harm done by Mr. DeChristophers actions,why are the courts costing taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars to imprison and punish Tim for political activism?Where is our legal scholar and President on this issue? Why does he not use his authority to pardon Tim and release him from prison?If he is re-elected,will he act to remedy this miscarriage of justice?Our justice system is a disaster in many respects and how long can we afford to imprison large segments of society for non-violent,many drug related,non-payment of debts,alcohol related,mental illness related offenses? I hope the Arab spring,and the internet will inspire people around the world to stand up for peace,against injustice,against militarism for the planet.Governments and corporations are devouring our world.Where is justice? Sorry to ramble . I hope there is a legal way for Tim to be released early,after all,California prisons are releasing people early due to overcrowding.Such is not the situation in federal Prisons?

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