SALT LAKE CITY — Despite being heralded by his defense team as a poster child for civil disobedience in the same vein of historical figures like Gandhi or Rosa Parks, a judge on Tuesday rejected any such comparison for Tim DeChristopher and said the rule of law must prevail.
"I am at a loss to see how we are going to govern ourselves if it is (going to be) by personal point of view," Judge Dee Benson said in delivering DeChristopher's sentence of two years in prison.
"This is not a case of Rosa Parks," Benson said, adding that it is a "myth" that DeChristopher acted because he had no other choice when he deliberately derailed a federal oil and gas lease auction in 2008.
Such justification for action "can't be the order of the day," Benson said. "Otherwise we don't have a society, we have an anarchy."
DeChristopher, who faced a potential sentence of 10 years in prison, was also fined $10,000 and given three years of supervised probation. His defense team said it will appeal, calling any prison time for DeChristopher unjust because it's not a deterrent in a case like this.
"There are people who belong in prison but Tim DeChristopher is not one of them," said attorney Ron Yengich, adding that such a sentence tells followers that the country operates within a "system of justice that is deaf to common sense."
The courtroom was packed with DeChristopher supporters who burst into loud and derisive chants at the conclusion of the nearly two hour sentencing. One angry fan was forcibly removed from the courtroom and another used an expletive directed at the judge.
His followers parked themselves on the steps of the federal courthouse afterward, vowing they'd join their heroes behind bars.
A red-faced Ashley Anderson, director of Peaceful Uprising — the group co-founded by DeChristopher — addressed the crowd, asserting "every federal courthouse in the country is the scene of a crime today."
Initially, police were just as steadfast in their efforts to let the protestors protest, stepping over people with their wrists hooked together with plastic zip ties chanting, "Justice is not found here!" That changed when the protest morphed over to 400 South, where some sat on Utah Transit Authority TRAX lines on Main Street, disrupting the height of the afternoon commute.
Salt Lake police officers eventually arrested 26 people. Nineteen were booked into the Salt Lake County Jail and seven opted to receive citations. They had been given the option to leave, accept a citation or be arrested, said Salt Lake Police Chief Chris Burbank.
"They wanted to show they were as close to the line as DeChristopher," Deb Henry of Peace Uprising said of those arrested.
All were arrested without incident, Burbank said, and were booked for investigation of charges such as failure to disperse, unlawful assembly and blocking a roadway. Salt Lake police later reported seven protestors opted for citations, and 19 chose to be booked into jail.
DeChristopher, 30, warned of such a reaction in the minutes before receiving his sentence from Benson and urged the judge to order community service working with disadvantaged neighborhoods or even pulling weeds for the victim — in this case, the U.S. government's Bureau of Land Management.
"People fighting for a liveable future will not be discouraged or deterred by anything that happens in this courtroom today," DeChristopher said. "You have authority over my life, but not my principles. They are my own."
Benson ordered the prison time despite the urging of the Salt Lake man's defense team, which argued the activist's "foray into crime was very brief, particularly when considered in the context of his exemplary life. His crimes were not committed to harm anyone."
Benson said such a detour into crime — however passionate DeChristopher's beliefs — could not be excused.
The sentencing followed a daylong vigil of sorts staged by his followers across the street from the federal courthouse, where representatives of Peaceful Uprising led the crowd in songs and rousing speeches. Peter Yarrow of the folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary also spoke and led a sing-a-long.
After the sentence was imposed, impassioned supporters spoke through a megaphone to a crowd gathered on the courthouse steps and implored them not to let DeChristopher's "sacrifice" be in vain.
"I ask every single one of you, what is your commitment?" one woman shouted.
Anderson let those gathered know that DeChristopher would not be coming out to address them.
"They took Tim away. He's gone for at least two years," Anderson announced. "He's not coming out, they took him away. He didn't hurt anyone, he hurt the status quo."
"This is about preserving the planet for people to survive," said Cori Redstone, who attended the event accompanied by two teenage sons. "Really, this sentence is unprecedented for an act of non-violent, peaceful protest."
DeChristopher was an economics major at the University of Utah when a BLM auction was held Dec. 19, 2008. He has said he initially went to the auction to join protesters outside of the downtown Salt Lake BLM offices, but he felt he had to do more.
During the course of the auction, after he registered as a bidder attesting he was there to participate in good faith, DeChristopher bid on 14 parcels for $1.8 million.
He told a BLM special agent he had no intention of paying for them. He subsequently was indicted on third-degree felony counts of violating an onshore oil and gas leasing act and making a false statement and was convicted after a weeklong trial in February.
Emotions also ran high Tuesday at the U.S. Attorney's Office following the sentencing when defense attorney Pat Shea interrupted a press conference with prosecutors. Shea challenged U.S. Attorney for Utah Carlie Christensen as she was outlining the various factors Benson cited as part of his decision.
Shea wanted to know if Utah's top federal prosecutor had ever gone to jail and whether she knew prison would serve as a deterrent to others contemplating similar acts to those committed by DeChristopher.
"I believe it will serve as a deterrent," she responded.
Shea continued questioning her about why BLM agents who saw DeChristopher at the auction didn't stop the man from committing a crime and why the BLM wouldn't accept money that environmentalists had pooled together to pay what DeChristopher owed.
"Mr. Shea, are you here representing the media?" Christensen asked before adding, "I'm not going to engage in that sort of argument."64 comments on this story
Shea was later asked to leave the office after reporters tried to conduct interviews with him in the same conference room. Outside the office, he said that he'd never had a client with such a pure motive in 35 years of practicing law.
"Mothers and fathers would be lucky if their sons had the kind of integrity Tim DeChristopher has," Shea said.
Prosecutor John Huber said they had asked for a significant sentence and felt the one Benson handed down "certainly qualifies."
"We find no fault with (Benson's) reasoning," Huber said. "This is a serious case that required a serious sentencing."
Contributing: Emiley Morgan, Ladd Brubaker