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The Untold Story of the Foster Farms Trial
The jury will likely come to a verdict on Friday. Here is what's been happening behind the scenes.
The Foster Farms trial, which began on March 7, has gone to the jury. Closing arguments happened today, and we should have the verdict as early as Friday morning. At stake, potentially, is two innocent women’s freedom. Alicia Santurio and Alexandra Paul face charges that could land them both in jail for up to 6 months.
But as I was driving back from court with Alicia today, she said something important that we’ve been learning over the last few years.
“I don’t feel like I’m the one on trial,” she said. “It feels like it’s a trial of the movement.”
There is deep truth to this on multiple levels. First, Foster Farms is self-evidently putting these two women on trial in an effort to deter the movement. The $8.16 that Foster Farms says is at stake — the company’s valuation of the two birds — could hardly justify the expenditure of resources otherwise. Their goal is to frighten other people from taking similar action. Second, it is not just the defendants, but the entire movement, that is being tested. Our collective will, solidarity, resourcefulness, and ability to persuade is being tested by this trial — in the court of law and the court of public opinion.
But the most important way this case is a trial of the movement is that it’s testing the power of the animal rights message. Was our verdict in Utah a fluke, the result of an unusually sympathetic and compassionate set of citizens of Washington County? Or is our message growing in power, to the point that the vision we held when we launched the open rescue network — a society transformed by compassion — is within reach? Friday’s likely verdict will not be a final answer to that question. But it will be an important data point.
That is not the only data, however, that came from the last few weeks. As hard as the legal work has been, it has also been an extraordinary learning experience. Here are some of the ups and downs we’ve dealt with over the last two weeks.
Being a convicted felon and a lawyer is going to present obstacles. I was pretty stunned to see my felony convictions in North Carolina brought up not just once, but twice, over the course of the last couple weeks. The first time came when Foster Farms attempted to argue that our attempt to obtain documents from them, that were crucial to the defense team, was a (vegan) fishing expedition. They claimed my background of being prosecuted for open rescues was proof of this.
The second time was even more surprising. The Deputy DA, Travis Colby, attempted to use my felony convictions as a basis for claiming that Alexandra and Alicia must have known their conduct was illegal. After all, wasn’t one of their attorneys charged and convicted for the exact same crime? (They conveniently left out the fact that I was also acquitted in Utah.)
I’m not going to lie. It was discouraging to see my own background used against my clients. And at times, it gives me second thoughts about my future in the law. But another part of me thinks, “This is exactly why should keep fighting as a lawyer.” I am proud of every animal I rescued, not ashamed, and my direct experience in the criminal justice system makes me uniquely situated to advise and support our clients.
It’s a tension that I’ve not yet worked out. What I can say is this: I am proud and honored that Alexandra Paul chose me as her counsel, despite the risk.
The culture of our prosecutorial system is fundamentally corrupt, and too focused on “winning” and defending power. The premise of the adversarial system of justice is that it allows for the truth to come forward. But this trial, and our other recent cases, has shown how far the reality departs from that premise. The most recent example of that, in the Foster Farms trial, was the prosecution’s attempt to bring in modified evidence, and completely new lines of factual inquiry, in its closing argument. They attempted to show the jury evidence that our clients were using burglary tools, and that one of our key witnesses was an uncharged co-conspirator in their crime. It was not just a violation of California’s so-called “discovery” laws, which require the prosecution to provide to us the evidence it will use at trial; it was unconstitutional, as defendants have a basic right to rebut and cross examine the prosecution’s evidence.
Sadly, this has been a refrain in almost all of our cases. Prosecutors are focused more on victory than justice. And “victory” seems always to mean prevailing on behalf of the powerful — the government, large corporations, etc. — against the weak. My faith in all aspects of our legal system has declined tremendously in the last year, as a result.
The legal system’s complicated rules have become a tool of injustice. It’s often said among lawyers that everyone hates the law of evidence. The byzantine set of rules makes it virtually impossible for ordinary people, including jurors, to understand the facts presented in court. That has certainly been true over the last couple weeks in Merced. But it is not just evidentiary rules that are preventing all but the most powerful and wealthy from seeing justice in our courts. Our entire legal system, in fundamental ways, seems to have been co-opted as a tool of injustice.
Take, for example, privacy laws. While in theory these might seem like good ideas, too often they are used by powerful corporations, such as Foster Farms, to prevent the public distribution of information. That has been true in our case, as key evidence from Foster Farms has been placed under seal.
The more general problem, however, is that the people with the time and resources to attend to the laws are those who have wealth and power. And they use their unique and privileged access to the law to exploit those who have less power.
There have also been some moments over the last few weeks, however, where our legal system has inspired me.
The power of the courtroom to hold power to account. While the rules and culture of our legal system greatly favor power, the courtroom is still a mechanism for our society to hold those in power to account. I was gratified, for example, to file a motion in court alleging criminal behavior by a factory farm. We also had the opportunity to cross examine a high level executive at Foster Farms for the first time. And I was honestly shocked by the ease with which I was able to force him to concede that: (a) his company lies about its advertising; (b) that his company sells sick birds to the public, at least via pet food; and (c) that his company apparently regularly flouts federal law regarding the processing and transit of sick animals.
People who care still have an advantage over mercenaries. Foster Farms and the prosecution have vastly more resources than the defense. And yet, by all accounts, we have won the legal battle in court. Our case is more polished and persuasive. Our witnesses are more natural and prepared. A big part of this is that the lawyers on our side really care. The staff attorney for the University of Denver Animal Activist Defense Project, Chris Carraway, has worked tirelessly on this case in a way that the mercenary attorneys on the other side simply cannot match. And the words we offer in court, on behalf of the defense, are obviously coming from a real and powerful place. In contrast, the prosecution and Foster Farms’ arguments seem fake and wooden. Let’s hope that’s enough to carry us to a second historic victory.
Our message has power. By far the most important highlight for me, however, has been how this trial has demonstrated again the power of the message of animal rights. I was so proud to see Alexandra and Alicia get on the stand, and openly talk about rescuing animals directly from a slaughter truck. And even with so much power and money against them, both defendants did an extraordinary job with their testimony. Rescuing animals, they said, was their legal right.
But the reactions of the jurors, in response to our stories, have been even more powerful. While I do not yet know how they will decide, it’s been clear to me that many jurors are moved by some of the things they hear. We’ve even seen eyes beginning to water, among jurors, during moments of this trial.
Even if we don’t prevail in court on Friday, this is an optimistic sign for the future. We will continue refining our message, our storytelling, and our abilities. And, no matter what the verdict is in this case, I am confident that the right to rescue will ultimately prevail.