EUGENE, Ore. – Prosecutors trying to get a group of environmental activists declared terrorists for burning animal research, logging and other businesses outraged the defense in court by comparing the defendants to Klansmen.
"I cannot sit idly by and hear what these defendants did compared to acts of the Ku Klux Klan burning empty churches," because the Klan's action also resulted in the deaths of young girls and included lynchings and murders, defense attorney Amanda Lee said.
The exchange came in a hearing Tuesday at which federal prosecutors asked U.S. District Judge Ann Aiken to declare the string of 20 arsons in five Western states by a cell of the Earth Liberation Front and Animal Liberation Front to be terrorist acts, qualifying the defendants for longer sentences under federal guidelines.
The six men and four women have pleaded guilty to conspiracy and arson in connection with fires, set from 1996 through 2001, that did $40 million in damage to a Vail, Colo., ski resort; national forest ranger stations; meat packing plants; research laboratories; lumber company offices; a tree farm; and an auto dealership.
Aiken said that because each of the defendant's crimes and circumstances are different, she was unlikely to rule before next Tuesday, when the first of the defendants is to be sentenced.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen Peifer argued that the fires qualified as terrorism because they were intended to coerce the government to change its policies on logging, selling wild horses for slaughter and genetic engineering.
"This is a classic case of terrorism, despite their protests of lofty humane goals," Peifer said. "It was pure luck no one was killed or injured by their actions."
Defense attorneys replied that the fires do not qualify as terrorism because the defendants took great care to be sure no one was killed or injured.
"If that is the standard, then the Ku Klux Klan did not commit terrorism" when they burned empty black churches in the South in the 1960s, Peifer said.
Defense lawyers noted that never before has any of the 1,200 fires attributed to the two radical groups nationwide qualified a defendant for extra time in prison because it was considered a terrorist act.