Thursday, September 16, 2010
Court Orders New Trial in ‘Eco-Terrorist’ Bombing at University
By STEVEN M. ELLIS, Staff Writer
The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals yesterday reversed the arson convictions of a woman accused of helping an “eco-terrorist” group firebomb a University of Washington building.
A three-judge panel said that while evidence suggested Briana Waters was one of five Earth Liberation Front members who burned down the university’s Center for Urban Horticulture in Seattle in 2001, causing more than $6 million in damages and destroying rare plants, books and years of research, the court was not convinced she received a fair trial.
The judges faulted U.S. District Judge Franklin D. Burgess of the Western District of Washington for admitting at trial “anarchist literature” glorifying violence against society without reviewing its contents. They also held that his decision denying Waters’ request to show the jury a documentary film she produced depicting her as a peaceful activist was error in light of the literature’s admission.
Writing for the panel, Senior Judge A. Wallace Tashima further said that Burgess’ general mass inquiry to jurors asking whether they were affected by news reports covering four arsons that occurred in the area while the jury was deliberating, and which were attributed to the ELF, was inadequate and also warranted reversal.
According to the government, Waters, a violin teacher from California, helped rent a car used by the arsonists and acted as a lookout while others set an incendiary device. A jury convicted her of two counts of arson in 2008, but deadlocked on charges of conspiracy, possession of an unregistered firearm and use of a destructive device during a crime of violence.
Burgess sentenced Waters to six years in prison and ordered her to pay $6 million in restitution.
The ELF and its companion organization, the Animal Liberation Front, are radical environmental groups that advocate using “economic sabotage” to undermine the “capitalist state.” The groups operate without a structured central hierarchy and individual cells plan and execute their own operations.
A number of high-profile arsons have been attributed to the ELF in the last 15 years. The group claims that its actions are intended to inflict economic damage, and that it avoids harming humans or animals, but the FBI considers it to be a “domestic terrorist” group.
Prosecutors say Waters and four other ELF members targeted the office of a University of Washington professor based on an erroneous belief that he was engaged in the genetic engineering of trees.
ELF members Lacey Phillabaum and Jennifer Kolar eventually admitted to participating in the arson, and initially identified William Rodgers as a third member. Rodgers committed suicide while in jail shortly after his arrest, and the government describes him as the former head of an ELF cell that committed many of the group’s arsons in the West.
Phillibaum and Kolar both testified against Waters at trial, and identified the fifth participant as Waters’ former boyfriend, Justin Solondz, who fled the country. Solondz was discovered in China last year serving a three-year prison sentence, and is scheduled to be extradited to the United States when the sentence is completed.
On appeal, the Ninth Circuit rejected Waters’ argument that she should have been able to argue that the government conspired to cover up Kolar’s initial statement to investigators that the three participants beyond her and Rodgers went by nicknames that bore no connection to Waters.
But Tashima said that the anarchistic literature allegedly given by Waters to Kolar was highly prejudicial, and that Burgess could not have adequately weighed prejudice and probative value without having completely read the materials.
Tashima further wrote that Burgess erred in declining Waters’ request to admit testimony that she told a cousin who helped her to rent the car to “tell the truth” to the FBI, reasoning that the statement wasn’t hearsay because it wasn’t an assertion. The judge also said that Burgess should not have closed to the public a hearing on Waters’ motion to dismiss her indictment for alleged government misconduct.
Judges Raymond C. Fisher and Marsha S. Berzon joined Tashima in his opinion.
The case is United States v. Waters, 08-30222.
Copyright 2010, Metropolitan News Company