Jury finds activist Tim DeChristopher guilty of both charges

Published: Friday, March 4 2011 12:26 a.m. MST

Tim DeChristopher hugs people as he leaves court following a guilty verdict on two federal charges — interfering with an onshore oil and gas leasing act and making a false representation to the federal government — in Salt Lake City on Thursday, March 3, 2011.

Ravell Call, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Emboldened by supporters' tears and a stoic acceptance of the inevitable, a defiant Tim DeChristopher stood on the steps of the federal courthouse Thursday and said his conviction on two federal offenses will only serve to strengthen people's will to peacefully fight against injustice.

"This goes well beyond oil auctions. This goes to the role of citizens responding when government is acting unjustly," DeChristopher said.

The passionate words were spoken to a throng of faithful followers — many of them weeping — following his conviction of violating an onshore oil and gas leasing act and making a false representation stemming from a botched oil and gas auction in December of 2008.

An eight man, four-woman jury deliberated for about five hours Thursday before returning the verdict that could send DeChristopher to prison for up to 10 years, although U.S. Attorney for Utah Carlie Christensen said later that afternoon that the maximum sentence would not be sought.

Regardless, DeChristopher said he's prepared to spend time in prison.

"We know now that I will go to prison," he said.  "We know now that's the reality, but that's the job I have to do. … If we are going to achieve our vision, many after me will have to join me as well."

Many who had gathered on his behalf throughout four days of judicial proceedings replied, "I will join you."

Despite his criminal conviction, DeChristopher said he believed a powerful message had been delivered via the supporters who kept vigil outside the courthouse.

"These folks outside showed there is no consequence that our government can throw on us that is scarier than the path we are on right now," he said.

He told the crowd that the powers within the courthouse tried to convince him he was a little finger that could be broken. But the crowd of supporters showed he was a finger on a hand forming a fist, which is not a symbol of violence, but symbolic that "we will not be divided and we will not back down," he said.

"You've shown that your power will not be intimidated by any power!" he said to supporters.

DeChristopher's conviction came after after two days of testimony in which he was alternately portrayed as a deliberate troublemaker out to make an illegal stand or confused young college student passionately caught up in the confusing machinery of a bureaucratic land auction.

In closing arguments, John Huber, the lead prosecutor in the case, told the jury DeChristopher "chose a path of illegality" and caused turmoil and confusion.

He said despite what DeChristopher's defense team would have them believe, DeChristopher acted deliberately and knowingly to break the law when he won 14 parcels valued at nearly $1.8 million.

"He alone chose to cross the boundary of the rule of law and impact the lives of others and the government of the United States."

DeChristopher walked into the Bureau of Land Management offices in downtown Salt Lake City Dec. 19, 2008  and filled out a bidder registration form. That form required his signature acknowledging that he was acting in good faith and was aware that to do so otherwise was a violation of a federal statute.

Later, after he was pulled out of the auction by a BLM special agent, that officer testified that DeChristopher "laughed" when told of the parcels he won and their value. He then, according to Dan Love, asked how much trouble he was in.

Huber said the two had a "gentlemanly" conversation in which neither Love nor DeChristopher characterized as threatening or intimidating.

Instead, DeChristopher appeared boastful, according to Huber.

"Was this an accident, was this a mistake? Not after 14 parcels and $1.8 million," Huber said.

Referencing back to DeChristopher's own words to a federal agent, Huber reminded the jury that the defendant said, "I decided I could live with the consequences."

Juror Fidel Martin of West Jordan said it was the evidence presented in the case — plus DeChristopher's own admissions on the witness stand — that led to the guilty verdicts.

"It was a difficult decision," he said. "But with the evidence that was given and his statements admitting to what he did, it was convincing."

Martin said the jury struggled through much of its deliberations and it "absolutely was not" an easy decision early on to reach.

"There was a lot of decision making at the end of the day."

South Ogden juror Randy Quinney said the outcome was inevitable.

"I would have to say that it came down to the fact that Tim admitted to all the charges in his testimony; there was no other direction to go."

Quinney added that DeChristopher was a sympathetic figure who they still had to convict.

"We felt like he was supporting his purpose, yet could have went about it through the proper channels."

With sentencing months away on June 23 at 1:30 p.m., it does not appear the cause of DeChristopher's group, Peaceful Uprising, will be quieted anytime soon.

Supporters planned to gather for food and more songs at the Unitarian Church in Salt Lake City Thursday night and Logan Froerer, another member of Peaceful Uprising, said more work remains to be done.

"We want to continue the conversation begun this week," he said. "There was information that was withheld and we shone a light on the government, on the fossil fuel industry. We will take on any sense of injustice that threatens individuals and people in the world."

DeChristopher supporter Lauren Wood, of Salt Lake City, said she and many others believe the jury didn't get "the full breadth of information" in the trial, namely that the auction was later deemed invalid by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and that DeChristopher could have paid for the leases that day.

"He was never allowed to pay for them, because he was not an insider of the gas and oil industry," she said.

But Wood reiterated that the trial and larger court case has united people in a movement that will continue, despite the verdict.

"Tim galvanized all of us and the fact that he was found guilty hit me like a ton of bricks," she tearfully said. "This has galvanized change in the community here in Utah and across the nation."

Defense attorney Ron Yengich said it is too early to tell if there will be an appeal — he's waiting for the sentence handed down by Judge Dee Benson — but reiterated that the defense team did the best it could given limations imposed by the court.

"We were limited by the defense we wanted to put on," Yengich said. "That was an impediment."

DeChristopher had sought to center his case on the so-called necessity defense, which hinges on the legal premise that he chose the lesser of two evils and had to act illegally to right a wrong.

If that defense had been allowed, DeChristopher could have summoned the breadth of his motivations for acting regarding climate change and environmental impacts caused by oil and gas drilling.

Benson rejected that, however, saying there were other lawful avenues available for DeChristopher to choose, rather than resort to breaking the law.

Ashley Anderson, director of Peaceful Uprising, said it would be wrong for anyone to view DeChristopher's criminal conviction as a defeat.

"There is a solidarity that has deepened throughout the country for all movements, among all people  who are concerned about justice, who want change by demonstrating joy and resolve, not silence and anger."

E-mail: amyjoi@desnews.com, emorgan@desnews.com Twitter: DNewsCrimeTeam

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