Should Tim DeChristopher get a harsh sentence on Tuesday?
So how should Tim DeChristopher be punished for interfering with an oil and gas lease auction? Probation or prison? Light slap or heavy fist? Hard time or soft landing?
The opinions split about as cavernously as the politics of the pro-extraction and pro-preservation camps.
But just days before the bogus-bidder-turned-environmental folk hero learns his fate in Salt Lake City's federal court, this much is resolved: DeChristopher says he is unafraid of jail.
"I can handle that. I can do the time," he says. "And I'll keep right on fighting when I get out."
More than 2Â½ years after the then 27-year-old University of Utah economics student hijacked a Bureau of Land Management auction in a one-man stand for "climate justice," DeChristopher says he is coming to terms with the notion of landing in a minimum-security prison.
"At this point, jail time seems very likely," he says. "But one of the descriptions I've heard from several folks about Judge [Dee] Benson is he's the most unpredictable judge on the circuit. I don't know if that's a good thing for me or not. He certainly hasn't seemed on my side in any way up to this point."
DeChristopher, now 30, will find out Tuesday, when his sentencing is scheduled for 3 p.m. in U.S. District Court. He faces a maximum prison sentence of 10 years after his March conviction on two felonies for misrepresenting himself and placing fake bids at a federal auction.
Folk hero • Views about his punishment from the environmental community and the petroleum industry are predictably polarized. But in this high-profile case, so too are the opinions of some elected officials representing the eastern Utah counties that are home to the sensitive land parcels at the doorstep of the Book Cliffs and Arches National Park in question.
Audrey Graham, a Grand County Council member, says many residents in the Moab area strongly support DeChristopher's act of "civil disobedience" and hope for a light sentence.
"I am relieved that he did take some action because things did change," says Graham, noting her mother was arrested five times during protests near the Nevada nuclear test site. "When I found out as a public official where the parcels were located, I was shocked. I felt blindsided."
At the same time, Graham concedes DeChristopher broke the law and says public backlash in either direction should not sway the judge.
"The environmental consequences of what he did or prevented the statements he's made have really opened the minds of a lot of people," she says. "I'm glad there are people out there like Tim who are questioning all the time and keeping us on our toes. People look at that and say, 'Wow, he's willing to go to jail for that.' That's powerful."
Mucking up the process • Mike McKee, a Uintah County commissioner who is deeply involved in Utah's public-land struggles, sees it differently. He says the rule of law needs to apply and that a strong message needs to be sent to prevent copycat crimes.
"Frankly, leases he bid on have not been reinstated," says McKee, whose county produces more gas than any other in Utah. "It really did muck up the process. How do they go about trying to make that right? It isn't just some little inconsequential item."
What's more, McKee warns DeChristopher sympathizers not to deem illegal behavior as acceptable.
Prosecutors argue DeChristopher's lack of remorse, including a defiant diatribe on the courthouse steps after his conviction, calls for a harsh sentence but not the maximum 10 years.
"Mr. DeChristopher has boastfully declared that he has no regrets for what he did, would do it again 'in a heartbeat' and encouraged others to follow his lead," Assistant U.S. Attorney John Huber wrote in a motion filed last week.
Huber notes the fraudulent bidding drove up the price for parcels by $300,000, harmed taxpayers and resulted in a $900,000 loss for the BLM.
One of DeChristopher's attorneys, Ron Yengich, shot back that his client actually made money for the government when he jacked up the bids in protest and won $1.8 million in leases during the December 2008 auction. Yengich says his client should not be held liable to repay the BLM because the Bush administration rushed the auction in violation of the standard environmental review. Later, President Barack Obama's interior secretary withdrew the leases for that reason.
Weighing on the judge • Typically, a federal judge will look for signs of remorse, if not outright apologies, as key factors dictating a sentence. DeChristopher, thus far, has not obliged.
Even so, the Rev. Tom Goldsmith, who leads the First Unitarian Church where DeChristopher is a member, says the judge and prosecution miss the "enormity" of the issue.
"If you don't feel any remorse in a murder case, that's pretty unforgivable," he says. "But for an act of civil disobedience that saved our national parks that is really part of a strategy to wake up America. You can't feel remorse when you're an advocate to save the planet."
Goldsmith fears Benson "will come down really hard." If DeChristopher is jailed, "there's going to be a sense of outrage," he adds. "The country ought to look at him as a hero."
Just the opposite, contends Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, who says DeChristopher's actions inspired by "environmental religion" were misguided.
"I'm not going to say hang him," Noel says. "I'd hate to see a guy's life ruined for one foolish act. But he's misguided on this. He's going to find out later in life he made a huge mistake."
Rep. Roger Barrus, R-Centerville and chairman of the Utah House Natural Resources Committee, agrees DeChristopher should do some time behind bars.
"Basically it's theft," he says. "And it's theft from the citizens of the state of Utah. The penalty should fit the crime. If you do anything else [short of jail time], you're just condoning his action and it's going to happen again."
No reason to hold back • The DeChristopher-affiliated group Peaceful Uprising, which organized rallies during the trial, will do so again Tuesday. Co-director Flora Bernard says she is praying for "the rational thing," but is resigned to hear Benson order jail time.
"We're very much more somber and grave, and a lot of us are feeling pretty angry," Bernard says. "It's still a vitriolic, highly emotional situation. There will probably be a response. That's about all I can say."
If sent to prison, DeChristopher predicts it will not slow the climate-justice movement. And despite the circumstances, that starts with him.
"I've known for the last 2Â½ years that the statements I've made could be held against me. But I certainly don't think that's a reason to hold back," DeChristopher says. "I totally expect to come out of it and jump back into the struggle for a healthy and just world."
DeChristopher sentencing Tuesday
O Climate change activist Tim DeChristopher, convicted of two felonies in March for placing bogus bids in December 2008 on oil and gas leases in eastern Utah, is scheduled to be sentenced at 3 p.m. Tuesday in U.S. District Court. He faces a maximum sentence of 10 years. A rally, organized by Peaceful Uprising, is scheduled Tuesday at Exchange Place across from the Frank E. Moss Courthouse, 350 S. Main St.
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