Judge dismisses pepper spray case
It could take up to one year to find out if a federal civil rights lawsuit filed over police use of pepper spray is going back to trial.
Attorneys representing nine plaintiffs in the case against the Humboldt County Sheriff's and Eureka Police departments intend to immediately appeal a ruling issued earlier this week that threw the case out of court.
"I think we're in a good position appellate-wise," said the plaintiffs' attorney, Brendan Cummings, given that "half the jurors who saw the specific evidence ruled in our favor and a large portion of the country who saw the videotape certainly felt it was outrageous and unreasonable behavior by the police."
A two-week trial ended in August with a hung jury. Prior to that, a police videotape of protesters having their eyes swabbed with the stinging agent was shown on television nationwide.
The case stems from three protests where law enforcement officers used pepper spray on Headwaters Forest protesters who had locked themselves together using metal sleeves.
The ruling by U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker in San Francisco, which held that no reasonable jury could find for the plaintiffs, will be appealed by month's end to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, Cummings said. If the appeal is granted, the case would likely go back to Walker's courtroom for a second jury trial.
Cummings, who is working with colorful San Francisco attorney Tony Serra, would not comment directly on accusations that Walker showed bias against the plaintiffs' case.
"What judge you get, there is a randomness to it. Certain judges tend to be more sympathetic to your cause than others," he said.
But Arcata attorney Mark Harris, who represented the protesters in the first trial, called Walker "an extremely conservative jurist" who favors law and order.
When the jury deadlocked, the judge told the jury, "I can certainly see how reasonable minds would deadlock on this important issue," Harris recalled, adding that Walker's ruling reverses that statement.
The ruling, which was called rare by Cummings, was a victory for law enforcement. Sheriff Dennis Lewis said his department intends to continue using pepper spray on a case by case basis as a compliance tool against demonstrators who are acting illegally and refuse to comply with police orders.
Asked what impact a successful appeal might have on this practice, Lewis said, "My legal people are telling me to wait and see and to keep my mouth shut."
Members of the environmental community decried the ruling as "legalizing torture of free speech practitioners."
Protesters to be charged?
Activists who were with Earth First! protester David Chain at the time of his death could be charged with manslaughter under a culpability statute, but it would be premature to predict what, if any, charges might be filed in the case, District Attorney Terry Farmer said.
"Where a death occurs during the commission of a crime, a person involved in that crime could be held accountable in that death," Farmer said, cautioning that "no decision has been made about what to do with anybody."
Activists reacted with alarm last week when Chain's mother told reporters that the lead sheriff's investigator told her the logger who felled the tree that killed Chain had been cleared, and that protesters might actually be charged for the death.
But Sheriff Dennis Lewis said Detective Juan Freeman, in fact, told Cindy Allsbrooks that the protesters could face charges. "He didn't tell her that they would be (charged), he told her that they could be."
"Whether the circumstances rise to criminal culpability remains to be seen," Lewis said.
The District Attorney's Office will ultimately decide if anyone involved in the case is prosecuted. It has yet to receive a full report from the Sheriff's Department.
But after reviewing the partial results of the investigation, Lewis said he believes the logger did nothing wrong. Pacific Lumber Co. employee Arlington Earl Ammons, 52, of Fortuna could not have possibly seen Chain when he cut the tree that fell on the protester, Lewis said. "From all I could see the man didn't do anything with the intent of harming anybody."
Following her discussion with Detective Freeman, Allsbrooks said last week that she is convinced the Sheriff's Department cannot be impartial in the case. Lewis has repeatedly denied such accusations, while Farmer said he intends to review all material related to the death, including information from the attorney representing Chain's family.
Railroad funds to creditors
Long-awaited funds released by the Federal Emergency Management Agency will do little to prevent the demise of the North Coast Railroad, officials say.
Initially under the impression that $1 million from FEMA could go to repairing the line which faces a Dec. 1 deadline to be up and running through the Eel River Canyon the railroad's governing agency has since learned that the money is, in fact, earmarked to repay creditors.
The news was a blow to the beleaguered system.
"This could be the end of the line," board member Ruth Rockefeller told the Times-Standard.
FEMA owes the railroad $14 million for past storm damage, but has refused to release the money pending completion of audits examining the railroad's finances. Those audits, which have been repeatedly delayed, are now expected to be completed Nov. 20, too late for the estimated five weeks of repairs needed to meet the Dec. 1 deadline for opening the tracks.
Cameras roll in Humboldt
Jaguars were spotted tearing up and down the hills near Petrolia in recent weeks.
Jaguar, the automobile not the animal.
Yet another car commercial wrapped up several weeks of filming in the county last week. And just last month PBS finished shooting an episode of Weekend Explorer scheduled to air in January.
"They went river rafting, kayaking in the bay, horseback riding, mountain biking, hiking, you name it," said Kathleen Gordon-Burke of the Humboldt County Convention and Visitors Bureau, whose job it is to coordinate requests for the film industry.
And yes, Steven Spielberg's location scout has been in and out of town again (The Lost World was filmed here), this time looking for landscape that looks like Japan. Humboldt is on a long list of possible sites for the filming of Memoirs of a Geisha.
HSU faculty to protest
California State University Chancellor Charles Reed will likely be greeted by protesters when he visits Humboldt State University Nov. 2.
A three-month dispute over wages in the 22-campus California State University system has left the California Faculty Association's 20,000 full- and part-time professors, librarians, lecturers, counselors and coaches looking at the possibility of a strike.
It would be the first time the faculty walked out since 1968, when professors went on strike over U.S. involvement in the Vietnam war.
At issue is how to divide $89.1 million in the state budget for salary increases. The chancellor's office is proposing a 2.5 percent general salary increase, while the faculty association wants a 4.7 percent increase, among other issues.
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