The government has secured the cooperation of a reluctant witness in a grand jury investigation of two 2008 arsons targeting faculty members at UC Santa Cruz, according to IndyBay.org. The witness had earlier invoked her Fifth Amendment rights, but agreed to testify after being threatened with contempt charges, according to the report.
Early in the morning of August 2, 2008, a firebomb exploded on the front porch of the home of UC Santa Cruz molecular biologist David Feldheim, forcing his family to escape by ladder out of a second story window. Around the same time, a Volvo station wagon belonging to another UCSC scientist was firebombed on a campus driveway.
Federal investigators and university administrators immediately pointed to animal rights activists as suspects in the crimes. Feldheim conducted experiments on live mice as part of his research on brain development, and was one of 13 vivisectors whose pictures, names and addresses appeared in a leaflet created by a local animal rights group shortly before the attacks, accompanied by a message that read, “Animal abusers everywhere beware; we know where you live; we know where you work; we will never back down until you end your abuse.” The leaflet was posted on the bulletin board of a local café.
But neither the Animal Liberation Front nor any other animal rights group issued a communiqué claiming responsibility for the arsons, as is their usual method.
The ALF engages in illegal property destruction to protest animal abuse and to rescue animals from vivisection, slaughter, fur farming and other forms of industrial animal exploitation. However, historically ALF activists in the United States have followed guidelines requiring them “to take all necessary precautions against harming any animal, human and non-human,” and no ALF member has ever been prosecuted in the U.S. for attacking a human being.
The owner of the bombed vehicle was not among the 13 vivisectors that appeared on the leaflet, and may not have even been an animal researcher, according to an ALF news site, further complicating the FBI’s theory of a connection between the arsons and the animal rights movement.
Having failed to identify and arrest any direct participant in the crimes, federal prosecutors brought indictments in 2009 against four local animal rights activists for violating the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, which classifies hitherto constitutionally-protected speech activities as “terrorism” when used in campaigns against animal exploitation-based industries (the constitutionality of the law is currently being challenged in court). The four indictees were charged as terrorists for engaging in First Amendment activities such as chanting, marching, chalking sidewalks, and creating and distributing the leaflet with Feldheim’s personal information on it.
In 2010, the indictments were thrown out by a district court judge for their lack of specificity.
The government is apparently enjoying some measure of success this time around by leveraging the grand jury system, which is routinely used by prosecutors and investigators to extract incriminating testimony from activists who have not been charged with any crime. Under the grand jury system, individuals can be subpoenaed as witnesses and forced to testify against their friends and fellow activists under threat of imprisonment.
Recently, a Seattle court jailed three anarchists in order to coerce testimony in a grand jury investigation (or, as likely, a fishing expedition) into vandalism at a May Day protest. One of the three prisoners, Leah-Lynn Plante, was released less than a week later, after reportedly cooperating with the investigation.
Illustration: Robert Ullman, The Stranger