Given a clear and narrow focus on the government’s case against Minnesota graduate student Scott DeMuth, this would not be a science story.
But nothing is clear and narrow in the cat-vs-mouse game between authorities and those who seek to liberate animals from laboratories and farms. There is a bit of both laboratory and farm in the original allegations against DeMuth.
And there is more than a bit of food for thought about the civil rights of animal-liberation activists as they clash with rights of scientists to conduct legal research.
Starting the story at the end, DeMuth, 23, pleaded guilty this week to a misdemeanor charge of conspiracy to commit animal enterprise terrorism. The violation of federal law carries a maximum penalty of six months in prison and/or a $5,000 fine.
In a negotiated plea deal, DeMuth admitted that he conspired with others in April 2006 to release ferrets from Lakeside Ferret Inc. — a Howard Lake, Minn., farm where the animals were being raised for sale to pet stores.
Why, you might ask, was this case in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Iowa? And why is the story being covered in this science blog?
Break-in at the University of Iowa
You have to go back to the beginning of the case to answer those questions.
Last November, DeMuth was indicted in the federal court in Davenport in connection with a 2004 break-in at Spence Laboratories at the University of Iowa. Vandals released pigeons and more than 300 rats and mice from the laboratory, the Associated Press reported. The charge would have carried maximum penalties of three years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
The vandals also allegedly dumped chemicals on data, damaged about 40 computers and publicized the home addresses of several researchers. Damage was estimated at $500,000. An e-mail sent by someone claiming affiliation with the international organization called the Animal Liberation Front took responsibility for the break-in, the AP reported.
Prosecutors said in court documents that DeMuth had been linked to the break-in by evidence discovered in his Minneapolis residence in 2008 during an investigation of anarchists who planned to disrupt the Republican National Convention. (He was not among the so-called RNC 8, four of whom face trial in October on charges related to convention protest plans.)
Targeted for political views?
DeMuth, a self-described anarchist, has denied any involvement in the Iowa break-in. He says he was targeted because he knows underground animal rights activists and has unpopular political views, AP reported. He is a member of EWOK! — “Earth Warriors Are OK!” — a Minneapolis group that advocates for animal rights and for environmental activists who face criminal charges.
At one point in the case, DeMuth was jailed for refusing to testify before a grand jury, as was his friend Carrie Feldman, another activist from the Twin Cities.
DeMuth was released from jail last fall after a judge ruled prosecutors failed to demonstrate he’s a public danger or a flight risk.
His attorney, Michael Deutsch of Chicago, argued in court documents that the government’s charges were vague, failing to specify what he allegedly had done.
Eventually, a lesser charge of releasing the ferrets was added to the case against DeMuth, and that provided a base for the plea bargain reached this week.
DeMuth’s vigorous defense base in Minneapolis argued on the website Support Scott DeMuth! that the charge against him demonstrated a pattern of government persecution of leftist radical activists.
“The state criminalizes political dissent and targets individuals and communities because of their political beliefs and associations, with a single-minded dedication to locking people up and little concern for the truth,” the website says.
Labs ransacked, scientists threatened
The other side of that general background argument comes from scientists whose laboratories have been ransacked, bombed and burned over the years in the name of animal liberation and environmental justice.
As a journalist, I have covered cases in the UK where animal liberation activists have planted plastic explosives on the undersides of scientists’ cars. I have reported cases in Minnesota where vehicles were bombed and years worth of experimental work was destroyed. From a vaccine laboratory in Wisconsin to a McDonald’s restaurant in Seattle, buildings have been torched by radicals in this underground movement.
Science publications and scientists around the country were closely following the DeMuth case in Iowa.
Alan Christensen, professor and chairman of the University of Iowa psychology department, told the Quad-City Times that a single conviction carrying a potential six-month sentence “is not the outcome we were looking for in terms of the resolution of our case.”
On the other hand, Christensen said, “I believe this whole process, including the FBI’s incessant five-year long investigation, has delivered a very clear message that vandalism, theft and threats, in the name of ‘animal liberation’ will not be tolerated.”
For that, he said, “we are very grateful.”
To be sure, there are lessons from this case — for both sides. But it’s a safe bet that the outcome does not, by any means, erase the tension between the scientists and the radial activists.