AR-News: Animal Activists Plead Not Guilty
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Thu Jun 17 19:39:39 EDT 2004
Newark Star-Ledger - Wednesday, June 16, 2004
Animal rights activists deny targeting lab
7 say they didn't push violence at test site
BY JOHN P. MARTIN AND BRIAN T. MURRAY, Star-Ledger Staff
Seven animal rights activists pleaded not guilty yesterday to charges that they promoted violence and vandalism against a research company that tests chemicals on thousands of animals at a New Jersey lab each year.
The 10-minute arraignment drew about 30 protesters to the federal courthouse in Trenton, and prompted the U.S. Marshal's Office to heighten security in and around the building. But the demonstration was peaceful and the court proceeding ended without incident.
The defendants, members of the group Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty, were indicted last month on charges of conspiring to commit animal enterprise terrorism, an offense punishable by three years in prison. Prosecutors contend the defendants encouraged and in some cases planned attacks to intimidate the research company Huntingdon Life Sciences, its clients or associates.
Huntingdon uses thousands of animals -- mainly rats, but also dogs and monkeys -- to conduct product safety tests each year for its clients, primarily pharmaceutical and chemical manufacturers. The company is based in London, but performs most of the tests at a laboratory in Franklin Township, Somerset County.
In 1999, opponents formed SHAC and vowed to shut down the company. The indictment contends the group posted an online list of "Top 20 Terror Tactics" that encouraged attacks, threatening letters and phone calls, e-mail "bombs" to crash computers and home invasions against Huntingdon employees and business associates. Most of the actual incidents alleged to have occurred were acts of vandalism.
The charges represents a rare prosecution under a federal law enacted to respond to what critics said was an upsurge in violent animal rights activity. Members of such groups say the prosecution could be a test case for how far the government can go in policing activism.
U.S. District Judge Mary Cooper tentatively set an Aug. 17 trial date, but attorneys said they probably will ask for an extension.
Executive Assistant U.S. Attorney Charles McKenna, who is prosecuting the case, said the evidence includes phone wiretaps and surveillance that yielded 440 audio cassettes and 50 videotapes. He told the judge that the case, "in many aspects, isn't the standard case."
Five of the seven defendants had lived until recently in central New Jersey, not far from the Huntingdon lab. The others hail from Long Island and Washington state. Almost all are in their mid-20s.
One, Darius Fullmer, is a paramedic. Another, John McGee, is a first-year law school student at Rutgers University. A third, Andrew Stepanian, was a student at the C.W. Post campus of Long Island University, his attorney said last month. The others -- Kevin Kjonaas, Lauren Gazzola, Jacob Conroy and Joshua Harper -- are "social justice volunteers," according to online statements from the group.
Each entered identical not-guilty pleas yesterday. They declined to discuss the case, but are planning a multistate speaking tour to highlight their arrests.
Cooper approved court-appointed attorneys for each, but several private defense attorneys said after the hearing that they plan to ask the judge to let them represent the defendants for free.
"This case is about First Amendment practices in the 21st century, the use of modern technology, the freedom to use Web sites to speak for any cause," said Andrew Erba, a Cherry Hill attorney who said he has represented civil rights groups before. Erba said he expected to represent Kjonaas, 26, who calls himself the president of SHAC-USA.
Attorney Daniel Perez said he has advised Gazzola for more than a year and intends to represent her at trial. Perez said the group did nothing more than advocate protection for laboratory animals.
"All these people are really accused of is running a Web site that reports on the activities of the animal rights movement and supports direct action," Perez said. "They did not engage in illegal activity. They exercised their rights to free speech. So when I read the indictment, my reaction is, where's the beef? Or maybe I should say: Where's the tofu?"
The free speech issue was a favorite for the protesters who toted signs and chanted slogans for about an hour before yesterday's hearing. Armed U.S. Marshals ringed the building, with riot gear stored inside the entrance alcove just in case.
"I came here because this is a travesty of justice," said David Lambon, 31, of Norristown, Pa. Lambon said he was an independent activist and a college student "between schools."
"This case is about more than just SHAC," said Camille Hankins of New York Animal Rights Activists, who led chants outside the courthouse with a bullhorn yesterday. "It's about the right to engage in community activism everywhere."
John P. Martin covers federal courts and law enforcement. He can be reached at jmartin at starledger.com or (973) 622-3405.
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