Update: the jury returned a guilty verdict on both counts against DeChristopher today after almost 5 hours of deliberation. Sentencing is scheduled for June 23.
As I reported on Day 1, the trial of "Bidder 70" Tim DeChristopher centered on his intentions and his frame of mind when he made bids on oil and gas leases at a public auction in December 2008. Did he simply lie intentionally? Or were his intentions nuanced and mixed?
DeChristopher's intent became the focus of the trial because his actions were mostly indisputable. Most of the auction was video recorded--a 50-minute tape of the auction was played for jurors Wednesday--and DeChristopher has publicly admitted to his actions on numerous occasions in media interviews, including City Weekly.
But prosecutors had to prove that DeChristopher intended to break the law, that his actions were not accidents, mistakes or the product of confusion.
"Did he do this on purpose?" Assistant U.S. Attorney John Huber asked the jury in his closing argument this morning. "Was it an accident? Was it a mistake? ... He told [BLM Agent Dan] Love that he knew it was a crime to pose as a bidder [in an interview immediately following the auction]. ... What he did was lie to the government."
But defense attorney Ron Yengich picked up on what I have called the "fuzzy, evolving intent" theory of the case. Yengich says that prosecutors are thrusting DeChristopher's thoughts and beliefs that he has expressed after this action onto the "young man" on the day of the auction who had no criminal intentions."His intention ... is far from clear or easy to discern even with the statements he has made," Yengich said, referring to media interviews in which DeChristopher seemed to express a very clear intention of disrupting or sabotaging the auction, which prosecutors mentioned during their cross examination of DeChristopher yesterday.
"He never had any intention, a desire to bid when we went to that auction," Yengich said, referring to claims made earlier that DeChristopher signed up to be a bidder under the belief that he could not enter the auction unless he did so. Even after he started bidding, Yengich argued that DeChristopher woke up to the gravity of his actions only after finding out that his winning bids had reached nearly $1.8 million and he was in a lot of trouble. "He wanted to raise a red flag or make a speech. ... His intention was not to thwart the auction. ... He wanted to give some hope to people ... that was his purpose in being there, it wasn't to break the law or fool anybody."
But fool them he did and prosecutors say DeChristopher also caused harm. They blame him for about $140,000 in lost staff time and other indirect costs that preceded the auction.Those who believed the George W. Bush administration had rushed the auction and not followed proper procedures, however--maybe even including some people in the Obama administration, which cancelled the sales made at that auction not because of DeChristopher's actions, but the BLM's--might blame others for that loss.
For example, Peaceful Uprising spokesman Ashley Anderson--a main coordinator of activists and supporters who rallied Monday and have attended the trial in a show of support for DeChristopher--says the the trial was not fair. The principal unfairness, he said, was the judge's ruling that BLM's own bad actions in preparation for the auction were not admissible evidence in the trial.
"The auction was illegal in the first place and the BLM wasn't following it's own rules and that's the exact agency that's spearheading the effort to prosecute Tim," Anderson says. "That wasn't allowed to even be brought up."
That's not the only evidence Anderson feels should have been presented to the jury, but could not be due to U.S. District Judge Dee Benson's rulings.
"The greater harm caused by global warming and the continued expansion of the fossil fuel industry poses a far greater threat to our country and our citizens and the people of the world than does this law being broken," Anderson says. "So a greater good was being served and [DeChristopher] wasn't allowed to argue that at all. Stepping in the way of the fossil fuel industry exanding and its grip on our legal system and our govenremnt is something that should have been disucussed openly with the jury, and it wasn't."
There was at least one other significant issue that the jury did hear about, but only incompletely. Evidence that DeChristopher was attempting to pay for the leases after the auction was admitted as evidence of DeChristopher's frame of mind (again, focusing on intent). All the jury knows is the BLM sent one certified letter to DeChristopher attempting to collect a portion of what he owed, but when it was returned, they apparently didn't try to send it again. The jury also knows that immediately after leaving the auction, DeChristopher called a wealthy friend and fundraiser to see if they could raise the money to pay for the leases and keep them out of production.
But the jury did not hear evidence about whether the BLM made any follow-up attempts to contact DeChristopher, whether DeChristopher made any follow-up attempts to pay for the leases (he and his supporters claim that he did, extensively and repeatedly) nor much evidence on how other so-called "bid walkers" are dealt with when they can't pay for their leases. BLM officials testified that other bidders have walked away from their bill unable to pay but are not prosecuted. Those bid walkers were not climate change activists intending to make a statement.
Though Benson would only let the jury have crumbs of this evidence, both the defense and prosecution addressed this "selective prosecution" issue (Benson previously ruled that the case did not meet the standards to allow for a selective enforcement defense).
"They want you to believe they come here without responsibility," Yengich said, referring to the government. Yenich asked Agent Love if he ever made a second attempt to contact DeChristopher about paying his bill after the first certified letter was returned. Love testified that that was outside the scope of his responsibilities, "because it wasn't in their box. That's not my job, that's not what I do."
Huber, by contrast, parodied the defense case as "No one begged me for the money."
The jury is currently deliberating. There's no way to know when they may return with a verdict.