SALT LAKE CITY — A tedious but critically important afternoon of jury selection wrapped up late Monday in the Tim DeChristopher trial, with attorneys settling on a panel of eight and four women to hear the case.
The 12 jurors — plus two alternates — were culled from a pool of 70 prospective jurors, who were subjected to screening on Friday by attorneys from both sides and will return to court for opening statements on Tuesday morning.
While the quiet workings of justice got slowly underway Monday afternoon inside Judge Dee Benson's second floor courtroom of the U.S. District Court of Utah, a passionate and vocal crowd of the activist's supporters held vigil in front of the building, singing songs, shouting encouragement with a bullhorn and entertaining the strong presence of police officers on hand.
"At least they're happy protesters," one officer remarked. "There hasn't been any trouble."
DeChristopher, 29, is being prosecuted on two criminal charges stemming from his actions at a December 2008 Bureau of Land Management auction, in which he deliberately ran up bids on more than a dozen parcels of land valued at nearly $1.9 million.
He has said he did it out of protest — to preserve a "livable" planet for generations to come — in contrast what he says were Bush administration land management policies that were a welcome mat to oil and gas companies.
DeChristopher said little at the conclusion of the day's events, admitting earlier he was "nervous" but unwilling to predict an outcome.
He risks up to 10 years in prison if convicted on the charges, which are violation of an onshore oil and gas leasing act and deliberately making a false statement, a charge arising from his registration as Bidder No. 70 that day.
Supporters throughout the day flouted that number as a show of solidarity for DeChristopher, with some simply holding cardboard signs with that number and others getting into more detail, such as "We are all Bidder 70."
Most popular were orange scarves that sported the number, made earlier in the day at the demonstration across the street.
Actress Daryl Hannah had hers draped around her neck, and joined other media in a reserved section of the courtroom, where she explained she would be reporting back on the trial to CNN.
Earlier, she said she was compelled to lend her presence to DeChristopher's legal battle.
"There are so many reasons on so many levels," she said, citing DeChristopher's effectiveness at exposing an "illicit sale. It was inspiring. It was brave."
She added that DeChristopher's trial, which could conclude by Thursday, "is a potentially historic trial which defends the right to practice peaceful protest and civil disobedience in light of an injustice."
Since making his stand, DeChristopher has been dubbed a hero by a throng of supporters — both in Salt Lake City and around the country — who say he shouldn't be punished for standing up for what he believes is right.
"It's been kind of a turning point for change," said Steven Dunn, 25, of Salt Lake City.
"It is time we take a stand for what we think is right, even if we face adversity or prison. We have to make our voices heard."
Dunn said he has never personally met DeChristopher, but was so moved by DeChristopher's actions he had to come out Monday.
"He's certainly inspired people from all over," Dunn said. "That's his power. You don't know him, but he's got us to all get together and support him."
The rally around the recent University of Utah graduate got started late Sunday night. Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary fame helped to lift spirits at a sing-in and candlelight vigil at the First Unitarian Church.
Ashley Anderson, director of Peaceful Uprising, the demonstration's organizer, said it was important that people inside the courtroom heard their message — even if delivered in the cold and outside.
"We will be here in some way as long as we have to."
Supporters say DeChristopher should be allowed to tell the jury why he was compelled to make the bids at the BLM auction, but Benson said the activist is not allowed to raise the so-called "necessity defense" — meaning he was forced to choose the lesser of two evils to right a wrong. That argument would have opened the door to introduce global warming and detrimental environmental impacts as motivators that drove DeChristopher to violate the law. Benson said the case failed to meet the legal test because other, lawful options were available to DeChristopher.
"They already said they were going to make an example of him," said Judy Bell, 70, predicting the trial would not play out fairly in the coming days.
In court Monday, Benson praised spectators for coming out in full force, especially to witness the jury selection process that seldom draws observers. When he asked if any of the jurors had been given a flier making the rounds at the demonstrations, nearly every hand shot up.
"Whoever was handing them out was doing a good job," he said. "They got nearly every one of you."45 comments on this story
Once the jury was empaneled, however, Benson admonished them to strictly steer clear of any information related to the case and resist any temptation to go about probing the Internet for independent research.
With Twitter, Facebook and other social media skyrocketing to popularity, Benson said jurors are "more and more tempted" to go online to learn more, but he stressed it was a violation of the duty they are sworn to undertake.
"We do trials the old fashioned way."