The Jury's Message
(Revised 6/19/02; broken link fixed 8/7/02, minor edits 12/1/04)
Analysis of the $4.4 Million Verdict for Judi Bari and Darryl Cherney in the Earth First! vs. FBI Case
On June 11, 2002 a federal jury returned a stunning verdict in favor of Judi Bari and Darryl Cherney in their landmark civil rights lawsuit against four FBI agents and three Oakland Police officers.
The jury clearly found that six of the seven FBI and OPD defendants framed Judi and Darryl in an effort to crush Earth First! and chill participation in Redwood Summer. That was evident in the fact that 80% of the $4.4 million total damage award was for violation of their First Amendment rights to speak out and organize politically in defense of the forests.
"The jury exonerated us," said Darryl Cherney. "They found the FBI to be the ones in violation of the law. The American public needs to understand that the FBI can't be trusted. Ten jurors got a good, hard look at the FBI and they didn't like what they saw."
"The outcome was even more significant because we won this case with our attorneys' hands tied behind their backs and the jury blindfolded by the judge's ruling that we couldn't talk about the FBI's long, documented history of targeting dissenting political groups for disruption and neutralization," added Cherney.
"It's really beyond our wildest dreams," said Darlene Comingore, Judi Bari's friend and executor of her estate who took her place as co-plaintiff in this suit. "We hope the FBI and Oakland and all the police forces out there that think they can violate people's rights and get away with it are listening because the people of the state of California and Oakland today said, 'No, you can't. You can't get away with it.' "
Lead attorney Dennis Cunningham said the message he hopes the verdict sends is that: "Ashcroft is doing precisely the wrong thing to abandon the (Levi) guidelines and let the FBI go after dissent with a free hand. It's clear that their intention is not about fighting terrorism, it's about suppressing dissent. That's what the FBI has always been about. Hopefully it will make Congress think twice about giving them a free hand."
"The jury is the conscience of the community," said attorney J. Tony Serra, who played a prominent role in the trial. "In this case they took the high road. They valued constitutional rights above the fear factor since September 11. This was a case of FBI falsity, perjury, and cover-up, and that can not be tolerated. The jury showed the rest of America that even in the face of brutal terrorism we cannot discard the very civil liberties that make the country great. This verdict encourages people who have been wronged to step forward and not be fearful."
"This case needs to be part of the context in the discussion about FBI powers," agreed Alicia Littletree, paralegal on the legal team. "It shows that the FBI has been looking at activists and tampering with their protected activities. They've been doing it for decades, and we've got to put a stop to it. Don't give the FBI more power to spy on people, because instead of fighting terrorism they go after activists."
Attorney Bob Bloom said he understood that this was only the third jury trial in a civil rights case against the FBI, and the damages awarded were the highest ever. In the 1981 Hobson case, a jury awarded $711,000 in a civil rights case for harassment of activists by the FBI and Washington, DC police. The family of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton, killed by Chicago Police during an FBI-instigated raid in 1969, ultimately received a $1.85 million settlement when the case was appealed after the jury hung and the judge entered a directed verdict for defendants. Dennis Cunningham was the attorney for the Hampton family in that case. The FBI paid $3.1 million to settle a suit by the family of Vicky Weaver, who was shot by an FBI sniper at Ruby Ridge, Idaho.
Judge Claudia Wilken took the extraordinary step of ordering jurors not to talk about the case or their deliberations to anyone but immediate family. But at least one juror apparently violated the gag order by talking to reporter Mike Geniella of the Santa Rosa Press Democrat on condition of anonymity, according to a story published on June 14.
The case was not even close. "There was always a majority willing to return verdicts in favor of the plaintiffs. There was never a chance that these officers were going to be cleared," the juror told Geniella. "There were too many lies and manipulation of the evidence. Law enforcement isn't supposed to do that. They should rely on the truth to make a case."
The verdict was the subject of editorials in the San Francisco Chronicle, the San Jose Mercury-News and the Santa Rosa Press Democrat.
The San Francisco Chronicle editorial said that the verdict "reminds law enforcement advocates that Americans are not panicked by the threat of terrorism into abandoning their civil rights. ... The overzealous pursuit of (Bari and Cherney) was unacceptable -- and unconstitutional -- regardless of what one thinks of the activists' politics." (6/13/02)
The San Jose Mercury-News editorial said the lesson in the Earth First! verdict was that "with broader power comes the possibility of abuse by government agencies. ... The real lesson here isn't just that environmentalists aren't terrorists; it's that people who challenge the status quo are the most likely to see their civil rights threatened. In a democracy, those people are important even when they're making us mighty uncomfortable. ... The next gadflies on the radar screen probably won't be white environmentalists singing folk songs. They may be people of color with thick accents. But Tuesday's verdict will protect their civil rights equally well, and for equally good reasons." (6/13/02)
The Santa Rosa Press Democrat editorial said: "A federal jury on Tuesday delivered a stunning rebuke of the FBI and the Oakland police, declaring that the police agencies violated the civil rights of North Coast timber activists Judi Bari and Darryl Cherney. ... There is only one certain conclusion. After hearing the evidence and deliberating for 18 (sic) days, a jury of 10 people decided that every American, regardless of his or her political views, is promised the full protection of the Constitution. (6/12/02)
Columnist Rob Morse (firstname.lastname@example.org) of the Chronicle worked the verdict into his June 14 column. In a piece satirizing the FBI's current recruitment ads, Morse wrote that he wanted to be "a columnist for the FBI," playing on the McCarthy-era movie title "I Was a Communist for the FBI." Morse wrote, "I want to learn how to destroy people's careers and reputations, the way the FBI did with Earth First's Judi Bari and former UC President Clark Kerr, as shown in Seth Rosenfeld's eye-opening piece in last Sunday's Chronicle."
The Institute for Public Accuracy issued a June 12 press release quoting two experts on the FBI's past crimes against the rights of political activists, including the infamous COINTELPRO campaigns to covertly "neutralize" dissidents.
Nkechi Taifa (email@example.com, www.law.howard.edu/faculty/pages/ntaifa) is director of the Equal Justice Program at Howard University School of Law. She said in a press release from the Institute for Public Accuracy: "This jury verdict is yet another indication of what is in store should Ashcroft's plans to loosen the longstanding Levi guidelines become a reality. The guidelines were implemented to curb FBI abuses uncovered during the Senate investigations of the mid-'70s. The 1990 Bari bomb fiasco occurred despite the existence of these clear guidelines prohibiting such outrageous activity by the FBI. What will be the limits of governmental abuse if there are no guidelines in place?"
Paul Wolf (firstname.lastname@example.org, www.cointel.org) was principal author of the report "COINTELPRO The Untold American Story." Wolf said of the Bari case, "Despite its carefully contrived image as the nation's premier crime-fighting agency, the FBI has always functioned primarily as America's political police. This role has included not only the collection of intelligence on the activities of political dissidents and groups, but also counterintelligence operations to thwart those activities.... There is no better example than the Judi Bari case to show that the FBI kept on well into the 1990s using covert action tactics against political movements and activists which they perceived as threats to the established order.... In spite of knowing full well from their own expert's testimony that Bari and Cherney were innocent victims, the FBI and Oakland police continued to lie to the media ... saying they had plenty of evidence they were the bombers."
To be placed on the U.S. Mail list for updates on Judi Bari's lawsuit against the FBI, or to make a tax deductible contribution to help fund the lawsuit, please contact:
REDWOOD SUMMER JUSTICE PROJECT
P.O. Box 14720, Santa Rosa, CA 95402
Phone (707) 887-0262 or FAX (707) 887-0865
Email RJF at judibari.org