A federal jury on March 2 convicted an animal extremist group and six of its members of inciting violence and terror against a New Jersey research company that uses animals to test drugs and consumer products.
The extremists, members of the Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty USA Inc., or SHAC-USA, are the first to be tried under the Animal Enterprise Protection Act. The 1992 statute was strengthened in 2002 to equate harassment and intimidation with acts of terrorism and carries a maximum sentence of up to three years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
After three days of deliberation, a federal jury in Trenton, N.J., also found SHAC-USA and the defendants guilty of conspiracy, interstate stalking, and various other criminal charges. Huntingdon Life Sciences is an international research firm headquartered in the United Kingdom with an office in East Millstone, N.J. SHAC and its U.S. branch have been trying to force Huntingdon out of business for several years.
Convicted of conspiracy to commit animal enterprise terrorism and interstate stalking were Andrew Stepanian of Huntington, N.Y.; Joshua Harper of Seattle; and Kevin Kjonas, Lauren Gazzola, and Jacob Conroy, each of Pinole, Calif. Darius Fullmer of Hamilton, N.J., was found guilty only of the conspiracy charge.
"This is a trial victory of national importance, and this office and law enforcement stepped up to vindicate the rule of law and the rights of the victims of these crimes. It is a proud day for all of us," announced U.S. Attorney Christopher J. Christie.
"The convictions defeat the argument that these so-called activists were acting within their rights of free speech under the Constitution. The verdict reveals these individuals for what they really were: thugs who went far beyond protected speech and lawful protest to engage in and incite intimidation, harassment, and violence."
James C. Greenwood, president and CEO of the Biotechnology Industry Organization, added, "This is a strong signal to those who would attempt to intimidate researchers and their families, friends, and business associates—their criminal actions are not protected by the First Amendment, which guarantees freedom of speech." The BIO represents more than 1,100 biotechnology companies, academic institutions, and state biotechnology centers around the world.
SHAC-USA called the convictions an attack on civil liberties as well as the animal rights movement. "While it is sad to see yet another blow to our civil liberties and another attack on the animal rights movement, we still have a battle ahead of us," according to a statement on the SHAC-USA Web site. "The conviction is just another example of our eroding civil liberties in this country and a battle to be fought in the higher courts."
The defendants will be appealing the convictions, the Web site added.
The case was the result of a six-year investigation by the FBI with assistance from the New Jersey State Police. According to the government, the defendants used the Internet to incite a nationwide terror campaign against individuals doing business with Huntingdon. Among the incidents described in the indictment are the following:
- Overturning the car of a Huntingdon employee in the driveway of his New Jersey home, vandalizing another car, and throwing rocks through windows of a person's home in 2001
- Detonating smoke bombs in the offices of two Seattle companies on July 10, 2002, causing the evacuation of two high-rise office buildings
- Destroying putting greens at a Long Island, N.Y., golf club where SHAC had announced that a director of a company that provided insurance services for Huntingdon was scheduled to be for a golf tournament in the summer of 2002
The SHAC-USA Web site encouraged and incited members and followers to direct their intimidation, harassment, and violence against Huntingdon and its targeted employees, as well as secondary targets—companies and employees who did business with Huntingdon—in an often successful attempt to get those companies to end their business relationships with the research company.
Victims testified that SHAC-USA and its organizers routinely posted personal information on their Web sites, including the names, addresses, and phone numbers of employees of Huntingdon, and other targeted companies and their employees.
Other information published on the Internet included names of employees' spouses, the names and ages of their children, and where the children attended school. In some instances, teachers' names, license plate numbers, and churches attended by employees and their families were published.
Victims of the SHAC-USA campaign, several of whom testified at trial, often endured vandalism, including rocks being thrown through home windows, cars being overturned, messages in red paint plastered on their homes and property, bullhorn protests in front of their homes, and harassment of neighbors.
Video recordings by SHAC-USA members at one protest outside a victim's Boston residence showed Gazzola yelling into a bullhorn: "Where were the police when an HLS worker's car got flipped over in his driveway? Where were the police when a Marsh executive had all his windows smashed in and his house covered in red paint in Chicago? .... And where were the police when your house was covered in red paint a few weeks ago? They can't protect you. Your (court) injunctions can't stop us. We will always find a way around whatever you throw at us."
U.S. District Judge Anne E. Thompson ordered the detention of all defendants except Fullmer. Sentencing has been set for June 6.