SALT LAKE CITY – A sentencing hearing turned into a rally supporting an environmental activist who has become an antihero after disrupting a government auction of oil and gas leases near two national parks in Utah.
Protesters gathered around the courthouse and dozens were arrested Tuesday as Tim DeChristopher launched into a lengthy address urging others fight climate change by taking similar steps of civil disobedience.
But U.S. District Judge Dee Benson said there was no excuse for the 29-year-old former wilderness guide's blatant disrespect for the rule of law.
Benson sentenced DeChristopher to two years in prison on Tuesday, making him the first person to be prosecuted for failing to make good on bids at a lease auction of Utah public lands. He ran up bids on 13 parcels totaling more than 22,000 acres near Arches and Canyonlands national parks in 2008.
"My intent both at the time of the auction and now was to expose, embarrass and hold accountable the oil and gas industry, to the point that it cut into their $100 billion profits," DeChristopher told Benson.
DeChristopher said he would accept whatever punishment Benson imposed, but added that time in prison would not silence him or change his viewpoint.
"You have authority over my life, but not my principles. Those are mine," DeChristopher said. "I'll continue to confront the system that threatens our future."
DeChristopher also said that in a world where corporations have so much influence over government he believed that civil disobedience might be the only way to make change.
"This is what hope looks like from now on. This is what patriotism looks like. This is what love looks like," he said.
A courtroom packed with DeChristopher supporters broke into applause when he finished speaking to the judge.
Benson didn't silence them. But when they were done, he said that concerns over climate change don't justify breaking the law.
"I'm not saying there isn't a place for civil disobedience," the judge said. "But it can't be the order of the day."
Benson said one of the great myths of the case was that he had no choice but to try and derail the government auction.
"Mr. DeChristopher had many other lawful ways to go against or protest the auction," Benson said.
Benson also gave DeChristopher a $10,000 fine and three years of probation.
After the sentencing, DeChristopher supporters in Benson's courtroom broke into song and one person shouted, "This is not justice."
The case has elevated DeChristopher to folk hero status. Since his arrest, DeChristopher has become a vocal advocate for the environmental movement and encouraged others to match his actions.
Outside the downtown courthouse, a protest gathering of about 100 people draped in orange sashes blocked the doors to the courthouse, many of them crying and shouting.
Protesters used plastic ties around their wrists to form a human chain that moved into the streets, blocking car and light rail traffic, police spokeswoman Lara Jones said.
Police arrested 26 people and hauled them off to jail off on a bus, she said.
Federal prosecutors didn't ask Benson for the 10-year maximum, but advocated for a significant sentence that would serve as a deterrent to others.
They said a U.S. Probation Office report, which recommended a sentence less than the maximum, underestimated the harm caused when DeChristopher ran up the price of the parcels, pushing the bids beyond the reach of other buyers in December 2008.
He ended up with $1.7 million in leases. DeChristopher could not pay for the leases and his actions cost some angry oilmen hundreds of thousands of dollars in higher bids for other parcels.
Assistant U.S. Attorney John Huber said the sentence was a significant enough deterrent.
"If a sentence was perceived as too light or inconsequential, it could be seen as a reasonable price to pay to grab the limelight or gain fame," Huber said.
The case has become a symbol of solidarity for environmentalists, including celebrities like Robert Redford and Daryl Hannah. Peter Yarrow of the folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary, led a sing-a-long and rally outside the courthouse in the hours leading up to the hearing.
The event was organized by DeChristopher's nonprofit group, Peaceful Uprising.
Carlos Martins, a college student at the protest rally, said after the sentencing that "they gave him that sentence to deter us, but they're proving that by making civil disobedience impossible, they're making violent actions inevitable."
Defense attorney Ron Yengich said he met with DeChristopher after the sentencing and that he was doing fine. Yengich compared his client's actions to the likes of Gandhi and Rosa Parks.
"He understands that part of the roots of civil disobedience are that some people go to prison ... the problem is we only impose the rule of law on people like Tim DeChristopher," Yengich said. "We never impose the rule of law on people who steal from poor people, destroy the banking systems or destroy the earth."
Associated Press writer Josh Loftin contributed to this report.