The Sentence 

A take on the DeChristopher case

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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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