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DeChristopher: More must follow me

Published March 4, 2011 1:12 pm

Eco-activist DeChristopher's will of iron may be testedby a force that is equally unbending — bars of steel.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2011, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Newly convicted climate activist Tim DeChristopher appreciated the songs, the banners and the hugs outside the courthouse Thursday, but he expects more.

"We know that now I'll have to go to prison," DeChristopher said. "If we're going to achieve our vision, many after me will have to join me as well."

The 29-year-old Salt Lake City man said he is prepared to do time after Thursday's two felony guilty verdicts for misrepresenting himself and placing bogus bids at a federal oil and gas lease auction. His question for a throng of supporters outside was: Who else is ready to join him in risking their freedom for a healthy planet?

Many in the crowd called back: "I'll join you."

A jury of eight men and four women deliberated nearly five hours before rejecting DeChristopher's defense for his Dec. 19, 2008, actions, which provoked a chaos of inflated prices and fraudulent winnings that shut down the last of the Bush administration's offerings to energy developers.

The fate of 149,000 acres of redrock Utah desert that the U.S. Bureau of Land Management offered to oil and gas drillers that day remains unclear because the Obama administration has pulled most of the leases off the market.

Moments after the courtroom had cleared, DeChristopher, along with attorneys Pat Shea and Elizabeth Hunt, silently exited the second-floor chamber. After a speechless ride down the elevator, DeChristopher retrieved his mother's cell phone from a security checkpoint, then asked Shea if there was anything else they needed to do before he could join his supporters outside Salt Lake City's federal courthouse. Shea shook his head.

"OK," DeChristopher said, shuffling to the door with his hands in his pockets. "I've had enough of this place for a week."

Outside, he walked through a column of supporters, offering a resolved smile as he hugged weeping friends and admirers. At the end of the line, he turned, raised his fist and delivered an impassioned oratory urging the 75 or so demonstrators and others worldwide to follow him into the climate wars. He called his prosecution "intimidation" but said it hadn't deterred activists.

"They tried to convince me that I was like a little finger out there alone that could easily be broken," he said. Instead, he likened his environmental cause to a unified, upraised but nonviolent fist — the symbol of the Peaceful Uprising group he co-founded after his 2008 offenses.

"They wanted me to think like a finger," he said. "Our children are calling to us to think like a fist."

DeChristopher called on others to embrace acts of civil disobedience to buck a carbon-based economy that he said is propped up by the government's status quo.

Peaceful Uprising member Lauren Wood wept when the jury read the verdicts, but after DeChristopher's speech, she asserted that she and others will respond with civil disobedience of their own.

"That's what we're all about," she said.

After DeChristopher departed, friend Ashley Anderson huddled with supporters and urged them to remain positive and heed the cause.

"If nothing else," he told them, "Tim has galvanized and brought a community together."

At least some in the wider environmental community are ready to step up their fight.

"Tim has shown the power of civil disobedience to shine a light," said Bill McKibben, who wrote a landmark book about climate change more than two decades ago. "The government should be giving him a medal, not a sentence."

McKibben praised DeChristopher for his "brave and lonely stand" and issued a warning to federal authorities and a challenge to other eco-activists.

"Just in case the federal government thinks that it's intimidating people into silence with this kind of prosecution, think again," he wrote in an e-mail. "In fact, this is precisely the sort of event that reminds us just why we need a real mass mobilization to stop the climate crisis."

U.S. District Judge Dee Benson is scheduled to sentence DeChristopher on June 23. U.S. Attorney for Utah Carlie Christensen said the government won't press for the maximum penalty of 10 years, but she added that prosecutors will wait for a presentence report before deciding how much time, if any, to seek.

Benson's rulings before the four-day trial left DeChristopher's attorneys little room to argue that their client's environmental convictions and fears of a climate crisis justified his actions. Nor could they delve deep into questioning the auction's legality, based on allegations that the Bush team rushed environmental reviews.

DeChristopher said the judge's rulings made the outcome inevitable.

"I felt great about the job that my attorneys did," said the University of Utah economics graduate. "We got in a little bit about what my views were, but we were not allowed to present any evidence to support those views."

Lead defense attorney Ron Yengich said the trial was fair and that he respected Benson's rulings. He was unsure about a possible appeal, though he lodged motions during the trial in an apparent preparation to argue that he should have been allowed greater leeway.

Prosecutors said the verdict was just, even if one doesn't believe the BLM auction was proper.

"We recognize that individuals have deeply held opinions when it comes to the use and management of our public lands," Christensen said. "As citizens of this country, we are free to hold and express these differing views. However, there are ways to express these opinions and advocate for change without violating the law, disrupting open public processes and causing financial harm."

Her comments echoed lead Prosecutor John Huber's closing argument, which sprang from an assertion that "the rule of law is a founding premise of our great nation."

"When a person breaks the law, there are consequences," Huber told the jury. "He crossed the boundaries when he left the lawful protest [outside the BLM auction] to go inside and do what he did."

DeChristopher had signed a form that explained possible criminal sanctions for bad-faith bidding, and a BLM employee had given him a placard designating him as Bidder No. 70. The defense argued that he signed in as a bidder only because he thought he would otherwise be barred from attendance and that, at that point, he had no criminal intent. Only later, he and his attorneys said, was he moved to jack up the prices and take 14 leases off the market by bidding $1.8 million that he had no intention of paying.

Huber told the jury that DeChristopher knew what he was doing. Yengich said, at first, his client didn't.

Yengich called DeChristopher "a young man who was playing a game" and initially meant to make a statement against the sales.

"He wanted to give some hope to people," Yengich said.

Yengich rejected the prosecution's argument that the verdict should be easy because, in his opinion, the government hadn't proved intent.

"It shouldn't be easy to just convict another human being of a crime simply because your government says so," Yengich said. The jury would have to decide "whether a spur-of-the-moment desire for hope is a federal crime."

He also told the jury that once DeChristopher realized his potential legal troubles that day, he called a wealthy friend who pledged the money for a required down payment, showing he meant to negate the offense altogether, if possible.

Huber's final words equated that action to payment after a theft. He said the thought came too late and paled in comparison to three defining numbers: "Bidder 70. $1.8 million. Zero down."

Tribune reporters Erin Alberty, Derek P. Jensen and Judy Fahys contributed to this report. —

Video on Web

• See Tim DeChristopher's speech and other reactions after the verdict at http://tinyurl.com/4dszvou.