GM crop pullers with positive motives convicted
Report on GM crop pullers from Durham action by Rowan Tilly, 5 December 2000
Judge Firth said the five GM crop pullers were guilty but honest and with positive motives. He said that any reasonable person would have pulled up more trial sites and much earlier ! (So lets get cracking ....) He said that AgrEvo and the farmer should not get any compensation - the farmers' union is up in arms about that. The defendants got a 12 month conditional discharge and £300 each court costs. The prosecution said sorry and she's given up GM food for the sake of her unborn twin babies. The crop pullers remain defiant. Media reports (see The Metro and The Guardian) are excellent and seem to come out on the side of the crop pullers. Supporters say that it's crystal clear the crop pullers would have been acquitted by a jury and who cares about missing a few legal hoops.
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A group of five GM crop pullers went on trial at Darlington Magistrate's Court for five days from 13 to 17 November 2000. In October 1999 the defendants had spent hours in torrential rain openly uprooting an entire crop (tennis court sized) of AgrEvo (now Aventis) GM oilseed rape in a field near Hutton Magna. All were charged with criminal damage and had produced signed statements to explain their actions.
Verdict: Guilty of criminal damage
On 4 December in Liverpool Judge Firth convicted the five GM crop pullers who took action to prevent genetic pollution at a trial site in Durham.
Judgement: it's only reasonable to do more and sooner !
(The full judgement will shortly be available from Rowan Tilly and is very useful for crop pullers facing trial)
Judge Firth is "satisfied that the defendants genuinely believed these crops were likely to damage [the farmer's] land and neighbouring land and wildlife ”¦ they acted ”¦ to protect that land, or at least that that was a significant reason for their acting as they did." However he also finds that they have failed to jump through certain legal hoops: "”¦ they did not believe that the means they adopted were reasonable having regard to all the circumstances"; and "The reasonable person, if he had the genuine belief of imminent threat ”¦ would have acted more quickly and would have made efforts to undo the same perceived harm at other sites."
Sentencing: motives were honest and positive
In his sentencing Judge Firth clearly recognises the spirit in which the action was done: "I am accustomed to dealing with many defendants who damage property ”¦ Almost without exception the damage caused is wilful, disruptive and negative. I say almost because this is the exception ”¦ I accept the honesty of [these defendants] motives insofar as they believed they were doing this for a positive purpose." So saying he ordered no compensation should be paid to AgrEvo (now Aventis), or to the farmer. The defendants were given a 12 month conditional discharge and ordered to pay court costs amounting to £300 each. The judge's recognition of the defendants positive motives would surely have translated as an acquittal by a jury.
Response of defendants: defiant
Following the verdict, Ms Exley senior said she was relieved that they were not being made to compensate AgrEvo UK and would have gone to prison to avoid doing so. ''We feel this is a victory because we removed the crops, brought people's awareness to the dangers of GM crops and what happens to us is immaterial because it is the action that counts," she said.
After sentencing Stephen Gordon, one of the defendants stood up and said: "That the law has ruled against us shows how incapable it is of dealing with long term threats to public health and the environment". Later he said "Whether we like it or not we must exercise responsibility for our action (or inaction) towards our environment ”¦ for the actions we do or do not take, affect everybody, both now and in the future".
Response of the prosecution: sorry !
The prosecution was very humble and apologised to the defendants. She said that she would be avoiding GM food both for herself and her unborn twins. She wished them all the very best for the future ”¦
On trial for five days (written shortly afterwards)
Hugh Baker and Stephen Gordon conducted their own defence while Lorraine and Zoey Exley (mother and daughter) and Emma Henry were defended by David Lees, a solicitor from Manchester.
The Prosecution was pregnant with twins - underlining the future perspective already present in the court. She opened with Farmer Richardson who told us he had encountered the five after their action and had a discussion with them as they made their way from the site with sacks of the oilseed rape. He stayed for the rest of the trial and told me he wanted to learn more about GM crops. Paul Rylott representing AgrEvo followed. Afterwards he was permitted to assist the prosecution for the remainder of the trial and was busily penning her questions and interventions. When a police sergeant took the witness box he gave a glowing report of the peaceful behaviour of the five. When the police arrived at the GM crop site, the three women had already left but sent in their statements later. The police explained that it would not have been possible to track the three otherwise.
The defence was based on the morality of the defendants and also had a sound legal basis: that it was necessary to remove the GM crops to prevent genetic pollution. It worked very well to have David Lees presenting the legal framework, which he did with great sensitivity so as not to shadow the moral basis. Stephen Gordon began the defence. During the prosecution's case he had already developed a rapport with the Magistrate through his enthusiastic interventions, for which you must stand, thus Stephen was up and down like a yo-yo. Between them all the defendants presented a spectacular quantity of hard scientific information showing the dangers of GM crops. They also came across as sincere with great integrity and moral fortitude. The magistrate, Paul Firth, seemed to be taking all this on board.
There were some memorable highlights. For the first time in a genetics trial expert witnesses - Peter Beaumont, Dr. Vyvian Howard, Angela Ryan and Dr. Sue Mayer - spoke with excellence, although not without some battles. The Prosecution tried to provoke defendant Hugh with the claim that the crop pulling action was nothing more than a publicity stunt. In a hilarious moment Hugh responded that there are easier ways to gain publicity in a campaign, with the delightful illustration of himself and others in a previous action "baring our buttocks on which a political message was inscribed". Emma and Zoey both did marathon stints in the witness box maintaining their composure throughout some tricky and relentless cross-questioning. Lorraine delivered her statement about our responsibility for future generations with unwavering conviction. Finally during Stephen's closing speech his emotions took over and we hung on each word as he struggled on, courageously leading us all to look upon the GM nightmare before us. It was one of those rare moments when you feel justice has been invoked and we were all moved beyond the petty laws and empty rituals of the court into a space beyond the words and thoughts and deeds of those present. This was a profound ending to an awesome and inspirational experience. Evidently the Magistrate was moved and he had the grace to respond to the gravity of the situation with great sensitivity.
The trial had finished in good time (lasting four and a half days) with the whole afternoon for the Magistrate's deliberations. However, after a short break he returned, not with the verdict, but to tell us that he would be unable to reach a decision in the time available. He set 4th December for the verdict to be given at Liverpool Magistrate's Court. Being an incurable optimist, I can't help feeling optimistic - at least he needs to think about it ! On the other hand, he may have wanted to create some distance from the highly charged ending in order to convict - but that in itself is a triumph. I'm certain that everybody in the court will have been deeply changed by the experience - and that's the greatest kind of victory. Do we really need a verdict ? I think we could just end it there.