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Utah seeks to block animal rights activists from justifying factory farm break-in

Defense seeks Utah AG's campaign contributions
Wayne Hsiung, Smithfield Foods action
Posted at 4:46 PM, Jun 28, 2021
and last updated 2021-06-28 20:33:58-04

BEAVER, Utah — A judge is considering whether to allow video of conditions inside a factory farm to be played to a jury and any discussion about "inhumane treatment" of pigs inside the facility.

Wayne Hsiung and Paul Picklesimer, members of the group Direct Action Everywhere, are facing charges of burglary and theft. They're accused of breaking into Smithfield Foods' Circle Four farms near Milford back in 2018, taking a pair of piglets. (Three of the defendants, Jonathan Frohnmayer, Samer Masterson and Andrew Sharo, struck a plea deal with prosecutors to lesser charges.)

The group posted video of the break-in. But prosecutors are seeking to block them from showing all that video to a jury, and from talking to jurors about conditions inside the barns. On Monday, 5th District Court Judge Ann Marie McIff Allen heard arguments in the case, but did not make an immediate ruling.

"In reality, this is about preventing the public from finding out what’s happening behind Smithfield’s closed doors," Hsiung said in an interview with FOX 13 on Monday.

In a series of court documents, the Utah Attorney General's Office has been seeking to block the activists from raising what's commonly known as a "necessity defense." The state's motions try to urge the judge to stick to the actions of the crime itself, not the motives. Prosecutors also want to block them from showing the entire video of their actions, instead showing only still images to jurors.

"Allowing the defense and its witnesses to attest or allude to or cross examine witnesses about the conditions of the animals would be highly prejudicial to the State, insofar as such evidence would mislead the jury and appeal to undue passions," wrote assistant Utah Attorney General Janise Macanas. "The Court would then be left to instruct the jury that references to the animals conditions and ultimate plight is not a defense to criminal conduct, leaving the jury confused as to why this testimony was raised and pursued throughout the trial."

But Hsiung said what they did was "for the public good" by calling attention to conditions inside the Milford-area farms. He accused the state of providing cover for Circle Four's owners.

"Their main intention has been to stop us from criticizing Smithfield. And this is part of a broader pattern including the state ag-gag laws where the industry has tried to suppress accurate and truthful information about the horrible conditions animals are enduring and the real risk to the public health," he told FOX 13.

Utah's controversial "ag-gag" law was struck down by a federal judge in 2017 as a violation of the First Amendment. The law prohibited filming inside an agricultural operation.

The Utah Attorney General's Office declined to comment on its filings, but in court argued blocking video of the animal rights groups' actions is to avoid inflaming a jury. Picklesimer's attorney, Mary Corporon, expressed surprise and called it "incomprehensible" that prosecutors would not want to use video evidence.

"What the prosecution is doing is really an attack on whistleblowers. Not just animal rights activists. They want to say that there are times when the government and large corporations supporting the government are acting badly. And if you were the one to expose that, take action against that, we’re not going to let say anything about it or even tell the public what it was that you found," Hsiung said. "Because we know the public will be aroused and have sympathy for what you did."

Recently, the defense has sought an order to force Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes himself to give a declaration about whether or not he has received campaign contributions from Smithfield Foods or anyone associated with it.

"Sean Reyes is listed as one of the prosecutors of the case," Macaras told the judge. "To ask him to make a declaration would make him a witness in the case."

The attorney general's office also disclosed that it had offered a plea deal to Hsiung and Picklesimer, but it has been rejected.

Judge McIff Allen did not say when she intended to rule, but prodded the case closer to trial.

"The court does not intend to make any decisions based upon on the embarrassment of a particular party or convenience or anything that is not a legally sound basis," she said.