Five years after activists allegedly took piglets from Circle Four Farms in Beaver County, a trial in the case is set to start in October.
Recent rulings — and the June bombshell that Smithfield Foods, owner of Circle Four Farms, will shut down two-thirds of its operation in the county — have shaped how the trial will play out.
While 5th District Judge Jeffrey C. Wilcox said he doesn’t think Smithfield’s local cutbacks “had anything to do with” with the accused activists, for example, he still wasn’t sure he could find an impartial jury — and decided to move the trial out of Beaver County.
Here is what to know about the case.
Where and why is the trial moving?
Five activists, four with the animal rights network Direct Action Everywhere (DxE), allegedly took two piglets from Circle Four Farms in Milford in 2017. Three of them took plea deals, but the other two — Wayne Hsiung and Paul Darwin Picklesimer — are scheduled to go to trial on Oct. 5, with jury selection set for Oct. 3.
Both are charged with two third-degree felony counts of burglary and a class B misdemeanor count of theft, allegedly committed on March 7, 2017.
Defense attorneys asked Wilcox last week to move the trial, arguing that county residents being so heavily affected by Smithfield’s departure may bias jurors against Hsiung and Picklesimer.
Other activists, some with DxE, handed out pamphlets about the case during a Pioneer Day festival in July. They allege in a lawsuit that Beaver County Sheriff Cameron Noel told one DxE member the activists would be “killed” if they didn’t stop approaching people.
That warning should be taken at face value as a sign that the community is hostile towards the activists, said Mary Corporon, who represents Picklesimer. He was not present and did not call for the activists to be there, she said.
But prosecutor Von Christiansen said “not everyone has connections to Smithfield” in Beaver County. Though Smithfield employs 450 people at operations in the county, only 300 of them also live in the county, he estimated.
The impact of Smithfield’s departure would not be enough to bias a diverse jury, he argued.
The judge said he had been “shocked” to learn that there were only 175 people eligible for jury duty. He was “concerned” about the small size of the community and the small jury pool, he said, given heavy media coverage that could influence local opinion.
Two jury questionnaires were sent out to residents of Beaver County, he said. One got 30 responses and of those, 12 people said they had friends or family involved in the animal production industry. Six knew members of local law enforcement.
In the other questionnaire, 23 of the 38 respondents knew people in the animal production industry and 13 knew law enforcement. The court needed 16 or 19 eligible candidates to select and seat a jury, Wilcox said.
He decided to move the trial to Washington County, which has a much larger population.
What will jurors hear?
The defense wanted jurors to hear from 11 out-of state witnesses, including the three activists who have pleaded guilty to the alleged break-in at Circle Four Farms.
Wilcox hasn’t ruled yet on whether or not the three will be allowed to testify.
But he decided this week that the owner of an animal sanctuary where the piglets were taken can comment about their condition when they arrived. Activists have alleged the piglets were near death.
The judge said he will also allow two law professors to testify as character witnesses. He denied the defense request to call a Colorado-based FBI agent who was involved in the search for the two piglets.
The judge had previously decided that an omnidirectional video, filmed at Circle Four Farms on the day of the alleged break-in, will not be shown at the trial.
Published in a story by The New York Times, the video shows pigs rattling against bars in small cages, pigs with open sores, mother pigs in crates with feeding piglets, as well as dead piglets in those crates and in garbage bins.
Hsiung will speak
Hsiung, a founder of the activist network DxE, is currently represented by attorney Liz Hunt. But he told the judge last week that he will represent himself at the trial, in order to be able to speak directly to the jury.
He is licensed as an attorney in the state of California, but does not have expertise in criminal court.
Late last year Hsiung was convicted of breaking and entering a farm and taking a baby goat he said was ill, the Transylvania Times reported. He appealed the two-year sentence of probation, which is still on hold, according to Matt Johnson, a spokesperson for DxE. Hsiung also represented himself in that trial.
Wilcox asked Hsiung if he had heard the saying that a person who represents himself has a “fool for a lawyer.”
Hsiung replied, smiling, “I have heard that, your honor,” but said that he still desired to represent himself.
The courtroom will not be open to the public and members of the media, Wilcox said, except through video streaming.
“We’re not gonna flip a coin,” he said, when it comes to keeping order and preventing interference in the court. “I’m assuming that there’s going to be protests here,” he added, and said that should not impinge on court personnel or jurors.
Animal-rights activists have the right to protest, he had said earlier in the hearing, but he doesn’t want them turning a burglary case into a “three-ring circus.”
Leto Sapunar is a Report for America corps member covering business accountability and sustainability for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.