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The Sentence

A take on the DeChristopher case

By Jim Catano
Posted // August 3,2011 -

Being a journalist and exercising objectivity while writing about something on which I hold strong views is tough to do satisfactorily … especially to myself. I’ll try, anyway.

I’ve been a Tim DeChristopher supporter all along and could never understand how he was even charged with a crime, given the Bush-era Bureau of Land Management’s policy of letting anyone waltz into a gas and oil lease auction and start bidding. Try that at Christie’s, Sotheby’s or other high-end auctions without proof that you can actually pay for what you’ll bid on. Bush BLM incompetence alone should have seen this case tossed.

I attended DeChristopher’s March trial, and things looked ominous from the start. I was visually shocked by one of the two large eagle emblems behind Judge Dee Benson’s bench. One is the standard U.S. federal image. The other’s a dead ringer for a common Nazi icon. I showed a sketch (cameras aren’t allowed) to graphic artists whose reaction was, “Whoa!” It also vaguely resembles an ancient Egyptian eagle, but all Benson’s courtroom bird needs is a swastika in its talons and the place would look like 1942 Munich.

I’m not suggesting that Benson wears jackboots, but the treatment DeChristopher got wasn’t much better than what he’d have received in a Third Reich tribunal. He was prevented from testifying—to any significant degree, anyway—that his motivation was to halt crimes against the environment, to thwart a land grab in which public-land leases were being sold at a fraction of their value (there are no “minimum bids,” and a good-old-boy system may exist among drillers), that he was prevented from later buying the properties he’d won, or that the Interior Department later invalidated most of the leases because environmental-impact studies had not been done and some parcels were within eyeshot of prized national parks.

Another example of unfairness was that the prosecution’s key witnesses said he’d been sent and read a regular flow of press clippings about DeChristopher and his group Peaceful Uprising. The content of those items, however, was never made available to the jury.

I attended the July 26 sentencing hearing expecting more of the same. I was pleasantly surprised, however, that DeChristopher and his attorneys were finally allowed to say what they would have been able to present at trial if we didn’t live in an age when judges can pre-censor exactly what a jury hears and deprive it of material facts needed to come to a fair verdict. The jurors’ historical options should have included the power to void the charges altogether due to the unfairness of the law itself … a basic principle of Common Law called jury nullification.

I won’t go into the details of DeChristopher’s eloquent address, but I thought it had fallen on completely deaf ears since Benson’s remarks that followed were a sermon on the necessity for all citizens to bend to the rule of law and operate only within the system to work for change.

This judge (a middle-age, BYU-schooled Mormon who’s been hearing and perhaps preaching “obedience is the first law of heaven” since he exited the womb) was playing true to character. I ought to know because I was LDS for 53 years and a fairly rigid letter-of-the-law type for much of it. I expected Benson to throw every page in the book into the sentence.

But I got surprised, again.

Rather than heeding the prosecution’s recommendation of five years of a possible 10-year sentence and $900,000 in damages, the judge passed sentence for less than what the court’s own sentencing officials had recommended: 27 to 33 months and $200,000 to $400,000. DeChristopher’s total bill from the judge was for 24 months in a minimum-security pen, three years’ supervised parole and a mere $10,000 fine.   

A final surprise followed. DeChristopher’s closest supporters were intent on showing disdain for any prison time whatsoever (a rather unrealistic expectation, under the circumstances) and decided to get themselves arrested for their own acts of civil disobedience. They bound themselves together and blocked the courthouse’s front entrances, but police ignored them since it was closing time, anyway. Then, in an emotional pique, they moved their human chain to the middle of 400 South and Main Street, where the two TRAX lines converge. This somewhat impeded car traffic, but it totally shut down the two commuter train lines for more than an hour, inconveniencing thousands of riders.

This is where we DeChristopher supporters split. I and several others tried to convince the leaders to let the trains pass. What are environmentalists doing blocking public transit—one social institution we all fully endorse—and alienating our most likely backers? Our pleas and the patient reasonings of the Salt Lake Police Department (including Chief Chris Burbank) were ignored, so 26 protesters were ultimately hauled off and cited with misdemeanors.

My personal take was that DeChristopher’s relatively light sentence was a blessing. During the hearing, one defense attorney, Ron Yengich, listed several prominent social changers including Thoreau, Rosa Parks, Gandhi, Brigham Young and Jesus, all who’d been treated unfairly by the courts of their time. Had DeChristopher walked without doing any time, I believe the impact of his act of civil disobedience would have been diluted. As it is, he may do enough to earn him even more credibility but not enough to ruin his life.

My hope now, as DeChristopher and his lawyers appeal, is that the actions of those protesters—who, to gain exposure while the national media cameras were in town, targeted TRAX rather than the government—won’t tarnish growing public support for someone who’s becoming an environmental hero worldwide.

Tim DeChristopher still needs his full day in a court where all the facts can be heard. This ain’t over. 

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Post a comment
Posted // August 18,2011 at 09:20 I'd be curious to hear your take after you see the eagle.


Posted // August 4,2011 at 10:51 @Anonymous. I did a careful Google image search of various eagle symbols from different cultures throughout history, and the image in Benson's courtroom (which seems to be an archetectural element on the wall) is almost identical to one of the common Nazi variants. Others (like the Roman) are only somewhat similar. The courtroom probably came first (probably completed at least 2 years before the rise of the National Socialist German Workers' Party), but some German artist visiting Utah may have been inspired to take it the other way. It's really that close. Drop in some day to take a look, and then do a search for "Nazi eagle." I'm surprised it didn't get draped over at some point.
Regarding the swastiza, even closer representations can be found closer to home. The Native American version (especially the Navaho) is almost identical to Hitler's. There's an interesting piece in Wikipedia. Almost makes you wonder if the swastika wasn't a common icon worn on clothing etc. before the ancestral Native Americas crossed over from Siberia.


Posted // August 4,2011 at 12:44 - Hi Jim. Now I'm very curious and will pop by the courtroom to see the thing (eagle). Shoot, man, you may be right about the German workers - wouldn't doubt that at all. I think the swastika had to have been in wide use before the Siberian crossing as there's no other good way to explain why Native American tribes use a symbol that's been in existence for thousands of years half way across the globe. Actually, several cultures around the world use the symbol. In addition to being a good luck charm, the swastika references so many other things: four elements, four seasons, four directions, four stages of a human's life (Hindi), rebirth, eternity. Really is too bad Hitler's designers ruined all that. They (Nazis) knew what they were doing when they chose their hateful icons. They were bastards, every loathsome one of them, but they definitely had style. P.S. You may not have been terribly objective with this article, but it was a good and thoughtful one. Thanks for the info regarding the eagle.


Posted // August 2,2011 at 23:46 I don't think he should have been locked up, as he didn't commit a violent crime. But the ENVIORNMENTALISTS blocking a mass transit line? That REALLY was stupid. You hit it right on the head.


Posted // August 3,2011 at 09:33 - Yeah, he sacrificed himself. For 24 months of his young life. He'll be treated as a celebrity in jail, he'll receive money and letters and books and best wishes and marriage proposals and book deals and if a Hollywood producer hasn't contacted his attorneys yet, they will. And I do not wish to be cruel to Tim, but I don't get the feeling that his life was all that tasked and complex before this, so it's not like his kids will have to come see him behind bars for 2 years or his business will fail without him or his employer will go out of business in his absence because he didn't have any of those things to worry about.

My beef is with the idiots who take every opportunity to let a protest become a child's nightmarish costume party on acid. Do you really think you help "our" cause by dressing like dirty, homeless, drug-addicted circus clowns? Riding a f*cking unicycle? The make-up, the masks, the paper-mache' puppets, all of it is disgustingly stupid and destroys any sliver of credibility the protest may have had. Nothing says "important" like a 54 year-old fathead dressed up like a cat or juggler and chanting some annoying phrase until it doesn't mean anything. The coup de grace was stopping commuters on TRAX from getting home. That was the single-most selfish, narcissistic behavior from a group of do-nothings that I've seen in a long, long time.

Someone needs to track down the so-called "leaders" of that idea and interview them about what the hell they thought they were going to accomplish and how seriously it back-fired on them. They are dead-to-the-world of public opinion here and only caused critical damage to their cause. Thoughtless. Ignorant. Childish.

How about a sit-in at the US Attorney's office until he brings charges against Mike Noel, his familiar Habbashaw, and 299 mouth-breathers who rode up Pariah with no consequences? You see, you want to take the fight to the people responsible, not innocent commuters. Idiots!


Posted // August 3,2011 at 08:55 - You're right - you weren't capable of writing about this objectively.

The "Nazi Icon", the eagle you refer to, is probably akin to the Roman Eagle, the symbol of power that Hitler took for his own and ruined. He did the same thing to the swastika, an ancient and good and very powerful symbol. Go to India and you'll see bright red swastikas all over the place.

I doubt that many thinking people are actually surprised at the actions of these so-called environmentalists: most are of the false breed, hangers on, band wagon fools, attention seekers, running around like chickens without heads, doing things for the sake of doing them with no real objective in mind and no understanding of the consequences. They are of the pack mentality and are just plain old followers.

DeChristopher sacrificed himself at the alter of bullshit.