San Juan County judge rejects delay in felony gate-closing case, but moves activists’ May 23 trial to Price

(Brian Maffly | The Salt Lake Tribune) In April 20017, this corral west of Bluff in Bears Ears National Monument was the scene of a confrontation between ranchers and environmental activist Rose Chilcoat and her husband Mark Franklin. San Juan County prosecutors allege the couple tried to deprive the cattle access to water by closing the gate pictured here. Chilcoat and Franklin say the felony charges are absurd, filed as payback for Chilcoat's watchdog activism on San Juan's public lands.

A Utah judge has cleared the way to try Rose Chilcoat and husband Mark Franklin later this month on criminal charges of trying to kill cattle in San Juan County, rejecting defense motions that attacked the basis for a prosecution that Chilcoat’s supporters say is politically motivated.

In an umbrella ruling Thursday, 7th District Judge Lyle Anderson granted defense lawyers’ request to move the May 23 trial out of Monticello, given the widespread disdain San Juan residents hold toward Great Old Broads for Wilderness, the Colorado non-profit that Chilcoat once worked for after a career as National Park Service ranger.

In charges filed last year, San Juan County prosecutor Kendall Laws alleges Franklin was trying to harm cattle when he closed a gate to rancher’s Zane Odell corral in Bears Ears National Monument west of Bluff. The charges carry a potential of 16 years in prison.

As proof of Franklin’s guilt, Laws has pointed to his marriage to Chilcoat, who had been inspecting Odell’s federal grazing allotments at the time of the gate closing. A few days later, she filed a complaint with the Bureau of Land Management, alleging Odell engaged in “significant ground disturbance by earth-moving equipment” in violation of his permit.

| Courtesy of Great Old Broads for Wilderness Rose Chilcoat.

Views pressed by Chilcoat and other Great Old Broads for Wilderness members have long angered ranchers and motorized recreation enthusiasts, who see the activism as a threat to their access to public land and their ways of life. But the group’s leaders adamantly reject claims they seek to shut down public lands grazing or that they promote environmentally motivated sabotage.

A defense-commissioned Dan Jones survey found most San Juan residents know of Great Old Broads and most of those who do dislike the group.

“If jurors and prospective jurors know defendants are associated with the Great Old Broads, it is difficulty to see how this court can seat an impartial jury,” Anderson wrote in his ruling. Instead, the judge will empanel a jury in Carbon County, where the survey found two-thirds of the residents had never heard of Great Old Broads and just 6 percent held a negative view of it.

But the rest of Anderson’s ruling, issued after a hastily convened hearing Wednesday, was a train wreck for the defense. Anderson rejected requests to admit polygraph evidence backing Franklin’s claim he had no malicious intent when he closed the gate; to recuse Laws from prosecuting the case; and most significantly, for a delay in the case pending an appeal of a key pretrial ruling.

The judge held that defense lawyers filed their motions and appeal too late. But even if they were timely, Anderson found the motions unconvincing.

For example, Franklin’s polygraph was not entirely conclusive, conducted six months ago without prosecutors’ participation. Now the defense’s polygraph examiner is not available to address the court prior to trial. Laws lined up an expert who would testify that test data “suggests an effort to defeat the polygraph exam with countermeasures.”

Anderson also rejected the defense’s claim that Laws’ friendship and public support for County Commissioner Phil Lyman, one of Chilcoat’s sworn enemies, is not a basis for disqualifying the prosecutor.

Defense lawyers last week filed a petition with the Utah Court of Appeals, seeking a review of Anderson’s refusal to “quash” his own ruling ordering the couple to trial.

Attorneys argue that the evidence prosecutors presented at the couple’s November preliminary hearing did not establish the probable cause necessary to warrant a trial. Without a stay, however, the case will go to trial before that appeal can be heard.