Earth First! radicals win case against feds, $4.4 million

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Jury awards Earth First! activists $4.4 million

JUSTIN PRITCHARD, Associated Press Writer  

June 11, 2002  

Calif. (AP) --

Twelve years after they were arrested in the bombing of their own car, two Earth First! activists were awarded about $4.4 million Tuesday in a federal suit claiming they were framed by Oakland Police and FBI agents.

After 17 days of deliberations, jurors awarded the money to activist Darryl Cherney and the estate of Judi Bari, who died of cancer in 1997.

Cherney and Bari were injured when a bomb exploded in their Subaru while they were driving in Oakland in May 1990. Bari, who was at the wheel, suffered a crushed pelvis.

The two were arrested within hours, but the case fell apart weeks later when prosecutors said there wasn't enough evidence to bring charges.

Cherney and Bari sued investigators for false arrest, illegal search, slanderous statements and conspiracy. They claimed officials ignored evidence exonerating the activists and lied to try to make their case.

The list of defendants eventually was narrowed down to seven former and current FBI agents and Oakland policemen. Jurors were asked to determine whether investigators deliberately violated the pair's Fourth Amendment rights against false arrest and illegal searches. They also were asked to determine if investigators chilled Cherney and Bari's free speech rights by portraying them as chief suspects in the bombing, casting a cloud over whatever they had to say.

"You've got to send a message that the lies and false claims in this case will never happen to someone else," plaintiffs' attorney J. Tony Serra said in his closing argument.

The case began April 9 with attorneys for the activists trying to show that investigators were "out to get" Cherney and Bari. For instance, investigators said the bomb was in the rear of the car, where it would have been visible to Cherney and Bari. But an FBI analysis showed the bomb was shoved under the front seat.

Investigators also claimed that nails found at Bari's house were a very close match to nails taped to the bomb. However, it turned out the nails were manufactured in huge quantities and couldn't be matched.

The Bari-Cherney team also said investigators didn't try to probe an anonymous letter sent to The Press Democrat in Santa Rosa shortly after the bombing. The letter gave specific details about the construction and placement of the bomb and included never-disclosed information about a different bombing that damaged a Cloverdale lumber mill also in May 1990.

The writer, claiming to be "the Lord's avenger," said the bomb was retribution for Bari's participation in an abortion rights demonstration.

At the time of the bombing, Bari and Cherney were organizing "Redwood Summer," a series of protests against the logging of old-growth forests.

Lawyers for the activists had tried to argue that the FBI has a history of targeting activists. They wanted to introduce testimony about the FBI counterintelligence program -- COINTELPRO -- that investigated groups such as the Black Panthers in the 1960s and early '70s. However, U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken rejected that effort.

Attorneys representing the officers and agents claimed investigators acted in good faith. They tried to show that at the time of the bombing Earth First had a reputation for sabotage, including the dangerous practice of "tree-spiking," and it wasn't unreasonable for officers' to suspect them of transporting a bomb.

Two of the Oakland officers said they were heavily influenced by what the FBI told them, although a third officer said Oakland police were in charge of the case.

The activists' attorneys portrayed them as nonviolent, saying Cherney and Bari had renounced "tree-spiking," the practice of driving long nails into trees that can shatter a chain saw.

Government attorneys pointed out that a road-spiking kit designed to flatten tires was found in Cherney's car. They also listed titles of songs written by Cherney, a folk singer, including one called "Spike a Tree for Jesus."

In one of the trial's more unusual moments, Cherney sang that song for the jury. The song derives its title from the assertion that "loggers killed Jesus," since wood was cut down to make the cross.

In closing arguments, Cherney's attorneys apologized for the "brash" song and asked jurors not to hold it against the activists.
 

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