Update on defense strategy in the Tim DeChristopher monkey-wrench BLM oil lease case

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You be the judge. The University of Utah student who threw a monkey wrench into a controversial oil and gas land lease auction administered by the Bureau of Land Management by buying up parcels he couldn’t afford and now faces severe jail time and fines is working up his legal defense for a July trial that is referred to in legal circles as “necessity” or “choice of evils.” His lawyers are betting that DeChristopher will be able to satisfy four legal requirements in mounting a successful defense.

post by Anne Polansky

Defense attorneys Patrick Shea (BLM director under Clinton) and Ron Yengich are betting that DeChristopher will be able to satisfy four legal requirements to prove the defense: (1) He was faced with a choice of evils and chose the lesser; (2) he acted to prevent imminent harm; (3) he reasonably expected a direct relationship between his action and the harm he wished to avert; and (4) he had no legal alternatives to violating the law. This is a “choice of evils” defense, which essentially says he committed illegal acts of lesser importance in order to advance a greater good. 

Dr. James Hansen appeared in person last month to help make that case. The prosecution is objecting to the defense with a 27-page motion, indicating some nervousness that it just might work.  This could be a landmark case in the use of civil disobedience to combat global warming; we’ll continue to track this fascinating legal development. 

This is a followup to a couple of posts we did this spring about a creative and courageous student in Utah who has almost literally put his life on the line in an effort to save our environment for his and future generations.  Tim DeChristopher faces up to 10 years in prison and $750,000 in fines for pretending to buy oil and gas leases in order to throw a monkey wrench in the works, a civil disobedience tactic written about in Edward Abbey’s famous book, The Monkey Wrench Gang.

See:

April 15:  Should Utah student activist Tim DeChristopher go to jail for nonviolent monkey-wrench tactics?

April 28:  Jim Hansen rallies for monkey-wrench activist Tim DeChristopher at his arraignment today in Utah

The case continues to get increasingly interesting, not just from a legal perspective or even a public policy perspective, but also from a moral and ethical perspective.

The lede in a May 16 article in The Salt Lake Tribune titled “Bogus BLM bid case: Feds worry jury might buy ‘monkey-wrencher’ theme—Prosecutors ask federal court to block climate-change defense” goes like this:

Prosecutors want to bar Tim DeChristopher from arguing in his upcoming criminal trial that he placed bogus bids on oil and gas leases to combat the climate crisis.

The reason, legal experts say, is the fear the some jurors may buy his argument.

While Tim DeChristopher’s legal defense team is working up its defense essentially saying that he had no real choice and was forced to try to hinder a large oil and gas lease auction in order to save the planet from additional climate disruption, the prosecution is showing signs of nervousness that his approach just might work with a jury.  Under the leadership of US Attorney Brett Tolman (a controversial figure because of his alleged involvement in a high-profile judicial corruption case), the prosecution filed a 27-page motion last week in federal court asking that the “choice of evils” defense be disallowed. 

The article goes on to explain, “The only purpose the evidence would serve,” the motion states, “is to encourage improper jury nullification.”

That means a jury could acquit DeChristopher regardless of his admission that he fouled up the lease sale on purpose.  In other words, if a jury thinks the sentence and the operating law is unduly harsh, they have the power to nullify the charges.  This would be good for DeChristopher, who says he is willing to go to jail and pay the fine, that his actions are commensurate with the threat.  However, if U.S. District Judge Dee Benson grants the prosecutors’ motion, and denies this young man the “necessity” defense, all that will be on trial is whether or not he engaged in a bogus buying spree with no intent to make good on his purchase, almost ensuring a guilty finding.  A lot hangs in the balance here for him, and could set a precedent for other nonviolent civil disobedience actions on climate change in the future. 

Defense attorney Pat Shea isn’t backing down.  On the contrary, the prosecutor’s motion seems to have further piqued their interest in going to a jury trial. 

“It’s like Br’er Rabbit: ‘Don’t throw me in that briar patch,’ ” Shea said.

Shea put it this way; 

“We want to demonstrate global warming is a reality that creates certain necessities, including civil disobedience.  Part of it is convincing the judge that [climate change] is an imminent threat.”

Dr. James Hansen of NASA attended DeChristopher’s April 28 arraignment, and gave several talks and speeches that essentially made the case on behalf of DeChristopher. 

Should the judge allow the defense strategy and should a jury sympathize with this line of argument, DeChristopher could be acquitted, the charges nullified.

If not, this brave young man might come to be seen as a heroic martyr for Earth’s climate—possibly the first of many. 

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