Tim DeChristopher: Oil Lease Bids Stopped Greater Crime

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Common Dreams

Tim DeChristopher: Oil Lease Bids Stopped Greater Crime

Launching appeal, convicted climate activist’s legal team gets 15 minutes to appeal 2-year sentence

by
Common Dreams staff

Tim DeChristopher arrives with his legal team at the Frank Moss Federal Courthouse on Wednesday. (Al Hartmann/Salt Lake Tribune)

30 year-old convicted climate activist, Tim DeChristopher, who was sentenced to two years in federal prison for foiling an oil and gas lease auction was given an opportunity to appeal his conviction on Thursday.  Arguing on his behalf, his lawyers claim that DeChristopher had no choice available to him other than to halt the lease of public lands, and that ultimately his actions were necessary to prevent the greater harm that would be done to the environment if the leases were granted to the drilling companies.

"Mr. DeChristopher’s actions effectively stopped the lease process and gave the new administration the opportunity to review it and then move forward," argued defense attorney Ron Yengich before the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver, as reported by the Salt Lake Tribune. The three judge panel will decide later whether the former University of Utah economics major should get a new trial or be released from the California prison camp where he has already served nine months.

Yengich, say federal prosecutors failed to prove DeChristopher's criminal intent, that his disruption of an auction of wilderness land was an act of civil disobedience and that the judge in the trial refused to allow testimony explaining his motives.

"We do have the power to shape the country, but too often people act like consumers instead of citizens." --Tim DeChristopher

"If a building is burning down and you commit a crime to save it," Pat Shea, another member of DeChristopher's defense team, told supporters at a downtown Denver rally after the hearing, "there’s no other option."

The original sentence DeChristopher was unusually high, claim his supporters, and many have accused the presiding judge in that trial, U.S. District Court Judge Dee Benson, of mishandling the trial and punishing DeChristopher for his political leanings.

In a prison interview earlier this month with the Salt Lake Tribune, DeChristopher talked about his time in prison and his feelings about the importance of social activism. "We do have the power to shape the country," he said, "but too often people act like consumers instead of citizens."

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Salt Lake Tribune: Tim DeChristopher appeal: Oil lease bids stopped greater crime

Tim DeChristopher’s attorney on Thursday finally got to argue that his client had no choice but to disrupt a Utah oil and gas lease auction because it was illegal.

Pressed for time as his 15 minutes before the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals shrunk with each technical question coming from the three-judge panel, Ron Yengich finally asked to get to what he viewed as "critical" in overturning the conviction and two-year sentence imposed on DeChristopher, the Salt Lake City activist who succeeded in disrupting a Bureau of Land Management auction on Dec. 19, 2008.

The leases for sale that day at the end of George W. Bush’s presidency had inadequate environmental review, the Obama administration would later find in revoking them, and Yengich argued that DeChristopher’s trial judge should have allowed him to tell jurors that he made false bids at the auction only to stop an illegal proceeding.

"Mr. DeChristopher’s actions effectively stopped the lease process and gave the new administration the opportunity to review it and then move forward," Yengich told the judges, who will decide later whether the former University of Utah economics major should get a new trial or be released from the California prison camp where he has spent nine months.

If they instead rule for the government, prison officials have told DeChristopher they will move him to a minimum-security camp in Littleton, Colo., he reported to friends this week. That would put him nearer to his parents, who live a couple of hours away, in Buena Vista.

The judges challenged Yengich’s assertions that his client had to break the law to prevent wrongdoing.

"He had other choices," Chief Judge Mary Beck Briscoe said. "He did not have to violate the law. He could file a lawsuit. He could file a protest."

Yengich responded that a lawsuit would not prevent the leases from landing with an oil company that then would have rights to them.

"Once the leases were handed over, there was little or nothing — actually nothing — that could be done," Yengich said.

And:

After the half-hour hearing, DeChristopher’s mother, Christine DeChristopher, said she was glad to see what she considered a fairer back-and-forth than what she witnessed at last year’s trial in Salt Lake City. "Not that I expect something positive to come out of it."

She called the trial "a railroading," and said she had been surprised that the government prosecuted at all. Now, though, she said, she believes it happened because the government needed to shut up any opposition to the status quo.

Using terms similar to how her son frequently describes America’s power structure, she said her family’s ordeal illustrates how little power "the average Joe" has, and how Americans’ pride in a fair judicial system is naive.

"The oil powers do control us," she said. "The corruption in the system was blatant with that judge [Benson]."

Dylan Rose Schneider, a friend and member of Peaceful Uprising, the "climate justice" group that DeChristopher co-founded, said the hearing disappointed her because it was too short, and mostly about legal technicalities.

"Nothing had to do with Tim and his action," she said — nothing about his attempted defense of the planet from climate change.

Defense attorney Pat Shea spoke to a dozen DeChristopher supporters at a downtown Denver rally after the hearing, and said it was a shame that DeChristopher never was able to make the case that catastrophic climate change required him to act.

*  *  *

Tim DeChristopher Speaks from Prison on His Present, Future

It’s more or less a peaceful existence for this co-founder of the "climate-justice" group Peaceful Uprising, and he has used the past nine months largely for introspection, not activism, since U.S. District Judge Dee Benson sent him away last July. He wants to go to a seminary when he’s out and become a Unitarian minister.

While not changing the defiant tune that Benson said landed him here, he concedes he would rather be somewhere else. It gets boring.

"I’ve just been doing my time here," he said last week in a face-to-face interview at the prison camp visiting room — a big room that looks like a bus station with rows of conjoined seats facing one another.

Although it was an environmental stand that led him here, DeChristopher is just as incensed when talking about "corporate citizenship," such as that endorsed by a Supreme Court ruling opening the vault for untold corporate dollars in elections. He champions worker rights and "social justice," and, in fact, said he believes it’s now too late for climate activism to thwart catastrophe. Best to ensure that poor people and nations don’t bear most of the brunt.

He’s not pulling activist strings from prison, and he’s not writing much but friendly letters. It doesn’t mean, he noted, that he regrets anything or wouldn’t — won’t — do something like this again.

"We do have the power to shape the country," he said, "but too often people act like consumers instead of citizens."

That question of citizenship — and its relative definitions — is essentially how he got here. Before and during his trial in spring 2011, DeChristopher maintained it was necessary to stand against a federal oil- and gas-lease auction that he argued was illegal and rushed without necessary environmental review at the end of the George W. Bush administration. The incoming Obama team later pulled the leases for further review.

Prosecutors said DeChristopher’s brand of "citizenship" threatened the "rule of law." Jurors, some reluctantly, convicted him. Judge Benson then told DeChristopher he likely wouldn’t have faced prison had he stopped speaking out — as he did in a fiery post-conviction speech on the courthouse steps, where the activist urged supporters rallying on Main Street to follow his lead into civil disobedience against climate change.

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