SALT LAKE CITY — When Judge Dee Benson announced in November that he was inclined to sentence a man convicted of raiding a mink farm to more time in prison than even prosecutors had recommended, defense attorneys began efforts to convince him otherwise.
Attorneys for William James Viehl filed motions asking for a new judge and argued that prosecutors had gone outside of the sentencing guideline. They said their client has experienced a change of character and is a different man. Letters came from supporters, both familiar and unfamiliar with Viehl, and they went so far as to compare him to Mohandas Gandhi and wartime freedom fighters.
The U.S. district judge still sentenced the Layton man Thursday to two years in prison. But Benson said comments from Viehl himself are what persuaded him to order a two-year sentence instead of a three-year sentence that he had planned to impose.
"I think it's noble to add a deterrence so other young people don't end up in my shoes," Viehl told the judge. "I truly wish I hadn't put myself through this, and I will respect any decision you make."
Benson said "that speech alone" moved him to sentence Viehl to two years in prison and three years of probation for the charge of damaging and interfering with animal enterprises. Viehl was also ordered to pay restitution in the amount of $66,753 to the family that owns the South Jordan mink farm.
Viehl, 23, pleaded guilty to raiding the mink farm in September 2008. Investigators believe he and Alex Hall, 21, released as many as 650 minks more serious than a simple property-related offense.
He was to have been sentenced in November, but Benson, after hearing arguments from both prosecutors and farm owner Lindsey McMullin, said he saw the incident as an act of terror and was inclined to go beyond the recommended prison term of six months.
Benson gave a sometimes impassioned explanation for his decision, saying that while Viehl had pleaded guilty to one crime, there was evidence to suggest he had attempted two other raids at mink farms in both Kaysville and Heber City. Benson said it was important to send a message with a sentence that would deter others from committing similar crimes.
"This involves real people involved in an honest, law-abiding livelihood. … (Viehl) is just a copycat, which reinforces my desire to do something to deter someone else from being a copycat," Benson said. "This shouldn't happen in America."
Benson also said comparisons between animal-liberation groups and historical protest groups and figures like Gandhi and Harriet Beecher Stowe were "ridiculous."
"To compare these acts of terror to those things is unbelievable," Benson said. "This concerns people like Viehl terrorizing honest to goodness hardworking people."
McMullin said afterward he was pleased with the judge's decision.
"We feel very confident in the judicial system," he said. "The underlying message is acts of domestic terrorism will be prosecuted. We hope this will be a deterrent to others and that Mr. Viehl will put his life back together and be a productive citizen and member of society."
Hall, a co-defendant charged in the case, is expected to take his case to trial. If he's convicted, he and Viehl would split the amount of restitution owed.
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