St. George Utah
The first thing you notice upon waking up in Saint George, Utah, is the breathtaking, majestic beauty of the mountains. The striking nearby towering rocks, a bright red against the blue sky, are echoed in the grandeur of the far away mountains in shades of gray and blue. Let your gaze drop a bit and you’ll contrast this dramatic natural scenery with the ugly sprawl of an extensive strip mall, festooned with motels, cheap restaurants, and highways. But much of the town is a celebration of beauty, starting with its most visible landmark. Established by Mormons who fled Vermont and then Illinois, the town was divided into lots, which were raffled between the pioneer cotton-growing families. Brigham Young, whose winter residence is open for public touring, dreamed up the big temple, which gleams in its colossal whiteness, along with its steeple, in the middle of town. Elder Edwards, who leads the tour, tells us that Young was unhappy with the original, shorter steeple; After his death, lightning struck the offending steeple, which persuaded the townspeople that Young was speaking to them from the next world, and they built one of more impressive stature.
The town nowadays is a mix of Mormon heritage, a faith still practiced by much of the population and ever-present in landmarks and street names; college professors and students from Utah Tech and Dixie University, among other institutions; artists, who are responsible for the many works of public art decorating the town’s many squares and traffic circles; and endurance athletes running and cycling along the mountainous trails. There is a phenomenal independent bookstore, an old-fashioned barbershop, a historical theatre showing international horror films, and a vegan restaurant, Gaia’s Garden Café, which whips up delicious rice bowls and exquisite matcha lattes.
In the center of town stands the Fifth District Courthouse, where my friends, Wayne Hsiung and Paul Picklesimer, stood trial this week for burglary and theft. The facts? Wayne and Paul, along with two others who pleaded out, entered a pig factory farm in Beaver County, Utah, operated by Smithfield Foods, and rescued two dying piglets, Lily and Lizzie.
Smithfield, a major supplier of pig meat to Whole Foods, Costco, and other large retailers, claims to raise the pigs “humanely”, but the truth is very different. The footage obtained by Wayne, Paul, Andrew, and Jon shows what actually happens inside the facility (which is now owned by a Chinese company).
The two piglets the activists removed from the facility, Lily and Lizzie, were nearly dying, suffering from a variety of ailments. Importantly, Smithfield had falsely declared that it ceased its use of gestation crates (confinement cages for mother pigs that do not leave them any room to move), and the investigation exposed that these were still in use.
Smithfield was extremely invested in its good name, which allowed it to market its pig meat as “humanely raised.” Exposing the truth would have adverse consequences for the company. And so began an investigation by the FBI, which would not only involve spending my tax money and yours on an extensive hunt for the piglets by a “six-car armada of FBI agents in bulletproof vests”, but also hurting the pigs and traumatizing sanctuary employees. Glenn Greenwald, who covered the story for the Intercept, wrote:
The attachments to the search warrants specified that the FBI agents could take “DNA samples (blood, hair follicles or ear clippings) to be seized from swine with the following characteristics: I. Pink/white coloring; II. Docked tails; III. Approximately 5 to 9 months in age; IV. Any swine with a hole in right ear.”
The FBI agents searched the premises of both shelters. They demanded DNA samples of two piglets they said were named Lucy and Ethel, in order to determine whether they were the two ailing piglets who had been rescued weeks earlier from Smithfield.
A representative of Luvin Arms, who insisted on anonymity due to fear of the pending criminal investigation, described the events. The FBI agents ordered staff and volunteers to stay away from the animals and then approached the piglets. To obtain the DNA samples, the state veterinarians accompanying the FBI used a snare to pressurize the piglet’s snout, thus immobilizing her in pain and fear, and then cut off close to two inches of the piglet’s ear.
The piglet’s pain was so severe, and her screams so piercing, that the sanctuary’s staff members screamed and cried. Even the FBI agents were so sufficiently disturbed by the resulting trauma, that they directed the veterinarians not to subject the second piglet to the procedure. The sanctuary representative recounted that the piglet who had part of her ear removed spent weeks depressed and scared, barely moving or eating, and still has not fully recovered. The FBI “receipt” given to the sanctuaries shows they took DNA samples “from swine.”
Several volunteers at one of the raided animal shelters said they were followed back to their homes by FBI agents, who dramatically questioned them in front of family members and neighbors. And there is even reason to believe that the bureau has been surveilling the activists’ private communications regarding the rescue of this piglet duo.
Value of the pigs
Lest this suggest that the pigs were of immense value to Smithfield, between 15 and 20 percent of the piglets, who grow up sickly and starved in the factory conditions, are exterminated. And sometimes, this mass extermination take the form of mass suffocation, as another DxE investigation revealed in 2020. Matt Johnson, who uncovered this horrifying practice, was charged with a violation of Iowa’s ag-gag laws, but the charges against him were dropped. It’s worth reading Marina Bolotnikova’s Current Affairs story about Matt’s legal exploits.
Paul and Wayne were not so lucky, and the trial against them, with charges for agricultural burglary and theft, proceeded, animated by the interest of Utah’s state attorney, who receives campaign donations from Smithfield. On Wednesday night, I flew to Las Vegas and drove two hours into St. George, ready to testify on Wayne’s behalf.
I was not there as an expert witness, but rather as a character witness: I know, like, and respect Wayne, have collaborated with him on lawful campaigns such as the fur ban in San Francisco (which was successful and later expanded throughout California), have spoken on his podcast, and have invited him to my classroom to show the footage and speak with my students (many of whom considered his visit the highlight of the entire course.) Coming up with a witness list and crafting the legal arguments was complicated. Judge Wilcox, who presided over the trial, severely limited what would and would not be admitted. In a series of blog posts, and in a book chapter, I explained that the natural legal framework in open rescue cases was the necessity defense: a justification for breaking the law in order to prevent a worse evil from occurring where no legal options to prevent it exist. But arguing necessity would open the door to ample proof of this “worse evil”, including showing the footage of Smithfield’s barbaric practices, and that Judge Wilcox did not want to allow. So, Wayne and Paul would rely on other defenses: claim of right, lack of mens rea (no “intent to commit a felony within”), and a lack of value of the “property” in question. They would show the footage to illustrate that the piglets were worthless to Smithfield. Even so, Wayne, Paul, Paul’s Utah attorney Mary Corporon, and the small team of dedicated law students who supported them with research, would face a ferocious uphill battle in their efforts to introduce relevant evidence in the face of Judge Wilcox’s determination that this was “a burglary case” and he would not tolerate it becoming a political soapbox.
Because I gave testimony only on Friday, I was banned from watching the trial footage in advance. I say “trial footage” because Judge Wilcox, who described the activists as “criminals” and “vigilantes” severely curtailed access to the trial. The activists, many of whom flew or drove hundreds of miles to support the defendants, would not be allowed in the courtroom. Judge Wilcox allowed only five people in the court at the time, anonymized the jury and, at some point on Thursday, cut off the WebEx streaming of the case, launching into an angry tirade against “vigilantes” (there is no evidence of intimidation or, really, anything that was not peaceful, 100% legitimate protest). Moreover, the legal team, who operated from a nearby AirBnB, saw strangers in suits skulking around the bushes surrounding the property and removing their trash, and when they came out to speak to them, the strangers fled in a black van, saying something into a worn microphone, and falsely claimed to be the “owners” of the AirBnB. At least one side of the trial was determined to uphold due process, and I didn’t want to mingle with the activists who were watching the trial, so I spent hours on Thursday hiking the mountain ridge and visiting Pioneer Park, Red Cliffs Desert Garden, and several city landmarks, like the temple and Brigham Young’s home. I got to talk to a lot of kind and pleasant city residents, many of whom knew that the trial was taking place there (it landed there through a change of venue from Beaver County, where half the jury pool would be comprised of Smithfield employees.) Throughout it all, I wondered why this trial evoked such panic or, more accurately, why the panic was so painfully misdirected at those who exposed the horrific cruelty rather than those who perpetuated it.
The answer I came up with, which I later saw play out again and again throughout the trial, was this: There is nothing more threatening to a human being than raising even the remote possibility that one is not a good person. People will go to incredible lengths of self deception, cognitive contortion, and actions in the world, to avoid confronting even the remotest possibility of a blemish on the goodness that is such an inexorable part of their self identity. This is true for all those who consume Smithfield’s products, or, really, any other animal products, and try to avoid any footage that might show them that they are complicit in something horrible. This is also true for all those who protect these abominable secrets–law enforcement agents, prosecutors, judges–who so desperately want to cling to the belief that they are the good guys and on the right side of this that they flout due process, the constitutional public trial clause, the jury trial rights, and pretty much any other constitutional protection the defense has.
The panicked blockade of transparency was evident throughout the trial (as I’m now piecing together from what I saw with my own eyes, my conversations with the legal team and the journalists, and the WebEx footage and twitter stream I followed after I got off the stand.) During voir dire, one prospective juror said he knew what jury nullification (the power of the jury to decide a case according to their moral convictions, rather than the law and the evidence) was. The judge struck him, saying that he wanted to “save a peremptory challenge for the prosecution.” This strikes me as outrageous, even against the backdrop of hostility to nullification in criminal courts. Judges admonish juries that they must decide the case according to the law and the evidence, and, as explained in this useful and well-written piece by Jordan Paul, “deliberately conceal [nullification power] by scrubbing references to nullification from the entire process.” In United States v. Kleinman, a Ninth Circuit case, the Court held that a jury instruction “severely admonishing” against nullification was unconstitutional, but that the resulting error was harmless. But the fact that nullification exists and is lawful is a matter of general knowledge, so it seems that Judge Wilcox overstepped the constitutional line here.
It would not be the last time. The most ferocious battles in court were fought over the extent to which the very limited allowable defense scope (what with necessity and, subsequently, claim of right off the table) required showing the jury footage from Smithfield. The entire field of evidence law deals with the balance between admitting evidence with probative value and suppressing evidence that is prejudicial. The kicker, of course, is that what makes a good piece of evidence probative is also what makes it prejudicial–namely, that it evokes a strong response. This kind of strong response might suggest that there is something awry at Smithfield and, by extension, that consuming their pork was not a good thing to do, so Judge Wilcox would not allow it. Many of the films were censored and limited to still images. In a more reasonable decision, the judge cut off the sound of the video, to exclude Wayne’s narration of what he was seeing inside the facility. but with the effect of silencing the agonized screams of the pigs. Nevertheless, some footage would have to be allowed, because of its direct import to the questions of mens rea and value. To commit agricultural burglary in Utah, one must have a specific intent to remove property: Wayne and Paul argued that their intent was to document conditions on the ground, and that the removal of the pigs was for the purpose of saving them. As to value, Wayne and Paul argued that the pigs, deathly ill from deprivation, a foot injury, and an inability to nurse, were of no value to Smithfield, undermining the definition of “property” in Utah’s theft statute.
Some of the ensuing battles over evidence are described in this informative KSL piece by Emily Ashcraft:
The jury trial for Hsiung and Picklesimer stretched throughout the week, and was filled with objections from the attorneys in an attempt to keep the trial within the parameters set by the judge. Mary Corporon, who represents Picklesimer, and Hsiung, representing himself, would argue that certain steps taken by the state should allow them to bring in more information about the farm conditions, including showing the video.
Janise Macanas and Von Christiansen, Beaver County attorneys, objected when a witness started talking about other conditions, specifically about a dumpster on the farm with dead piglets inside or the mother pig’s health.
Testimony was offered by veterinarians chosen by both sides, an investigator, a Smithfield employee and a man who was part of the same undercover operation of the farm in 2017.
After all of the testimony in the case had been offered, the judge issued a directed verdict dismissing the first count against both Picklesimer and Hsiung. Corporon argued that each of the burglary counts was specific to a building, and that the two defendants did not expect to see piglets in a gestation barn — meaning they would not have been entering the barn with an intent to steal.
There was also a discussion about a possible mistrial. Hsiung and Corporon argued that the prosecution asking a state veterinarian about care for the pigs at the farm opened the door for them to bring in new evidence about the conditions of the farm. The prosecutor said that was simply an effort to show that the two specific piglets would have had a chance of receiving medical care that next day.
The judge said bringing in that much new evidence at the end of the day on the last day of trial was not an option.
“I’m not going to open up testimony again in this case, and if we need a mistrial, we’ll have one,” Wilcox said.
Ultimately, Corporon and Hsiung decided to continue with the trial, after the state’s attorneys agreed with asking the jury to not take into account that testimony.
On Thursday, Hsiung called himself to the witness stand, asking himself questions and then opening himself up to questions from the other attorneys. While questioning himself, he admitted to taking the piglets, but said it was not theft because he took piglets that were of no value to Smithfield.
Hsiung said the case is not about burglary and theft but about animal cruelty and animal rescue. The two piglets were given names after they were taken from the facility, Lilly and Lizzie, and he spoke about their conditions.
Although he said they did not intend to take piglets, during his testimony he admitted they had a veterinarian on hand in case they brought out animals and that they had evidence that there were animals dying on the farm. Hsiung said they had taken animals in the past during similar operations, sometimes with the owner’s permission.
He argued that he had a belief that the piglets were abandoned property, and prompted witnesses to testify that the piglets were more of a liability to Smithfield and he may have been helping them by removing the piglets from the property. Ultimately, though, he said the purpose was to save the piglets from “certain death.”
“We were not there to be burglars or thieves,” Hsiung told the jury. “We were there just to give aid to dying animals.”
I witnessed the judge’s wrestling with the factory farm content firsthand. Under direct examination, I spoke about how Wayne and I met and about some of the animal rights advocacy we had done together. When asked to give examples of Wayne’s honesty and integrity, I started explaining how open rescue works–that open rescuers keep their faces revealed and their identities known and take responsibility for what they’ve done even when it means facing scary consequences. Just as I started speaking, Janise Macanas objected, the judge (who seems to have been a bit taken aback by fancy professors siding with the defendants) put the kibosh on the rest of my testimony, and that was that.
Here’s what I would have said, if I were allowed to speak: Wayne’s honesty and integrity are obvious to anyone who meets him. His willingness not only to face incarceration in Utah, but possibly to lose his license to practice law in California (a previous attempt to disbar him for saving animals failed), is admirable. Every social movement that tries to improve the world must encompass lots of different people: the food engineers and companies that bring us Beyond Burgers, the chefs and bloggers who bring us wonderful vegan recipes, the mainstream advocacy groups that seek legal change, the law clinics and nonprofits, and yes, the people who are willing, at great expense and sacrifice, to actually risk going into these horrendous facilities and tell us how our food is being made. These folks provide an invaluable service to the movement, which should embrace them rather than distancing itself from them. It’s crystal clear who the good guys and who the bad guys are in this case. And intelligent, curious people should be very suspicious when someone is trying to keep important information from them.
The mistrial issue was quite heartwrenching to experience. Dr. Sherstin Rosenberg, the veterinarian at Happy Hen sanctuary, testified about the condition of the piglets, discussing their inability to nurse and their injuries. Not content with this, the prosecution put Dr. Dean Taylor, the state veterinarian, on the stand as a rebuttal witness. But it turned out, during Dr. Taylor’s evidence, that Smithfield employed a grand total of two veterinarians for more than a million pigs. Later rebuttal testimony from a Smithfield employee, which confirmed this, led to a flood of questions from the jury about the medical condition of pigs at Smithfield (to the point that I wondered how many of the jurors would eschew pork, or become vegan altogether, after this trial). Judge Wilcox was visibly despaired by all this. He had tried so hard to rein in the trial and avoid discussing the real issues, but, despite his best efforts, the animal cruelty stuff slipped from under him and occupied front and center at the trial. In desperation, he proposed holding a mistrial. I thought this would be a fantastic end to the whole thing. My hope (perhaps misguided?) was that the state of Utah would realize that they should stop throwing good taxpayer money after bad, and refrain from reprosecuting–particularly in Paul’s case. I also hoped (perhaps against hope?) that, after declaring a mistrial, Judge Wilcox would pick up the phone, call the state attorney, and tell him that reprosecution was not worth it. But Wayne and Paul decided to proceed forward with the trial. The unsatisfying compromise was that Judge Wilcox instructed the jury to ignore the rebuttal testimony from the veterinarian and the Smithfield employee.
What happened at closing arguments is aptly described in the KSL article:
On Friday evening, Christiansen claimed Hsiung admitted to taking the animal, but attempted to minimize his crime with contradictory testimony. He said Hsiung testified that he didn’t intend to take a pig, but in the script of the video shared at trial, Hsiung said, “If we see an animal we can take out, we’ll take them out.”
He talked about how Hsuing and the rest of the group went into the facility on March 6 and March 7, but did not take any animals on March 6. Christiansen said this shows they were not just taking piglets that needed emergency care but were taking pigs as part of a publicity move.
“The pigs were just props in a video, props in a movie,” Christiansen said.
He said the animals were alive and did have value, and any evidence of poor health displayed at trial is speculation.
Christiansen also talked about the charges for Picklesimer, and said holding the camera was a very important role in the burglary, allowing Direct Action Everywhere to produce a video and raise donations.
“Every person that participated in the burglary that night was part of the crime,” the prosecutor said.
Picklesimer’s attorney, however, said he did not even touch a pig, and did not intend to commit a theft and should not be held accountable for something he didn’t do.
She told the jury if they do believe Picklesimer might be guilty based on being part of the group, the should directly consider the worth of the piglets to Smithfield.
“Bottom line these piglets are worth nothing, it’s a net negative,” Corporon said.
She said what Picklesimer did was like standing next to someone else who was emptying a trash can.
Hsiung presented his arguments last, making a plea to the jury to consider their feelings and recognize a difference between stealing an animal and helping an animal.
“We did not intend to take a piglet out who had anything of value for Smithfield,” Hsiung said, arguing that these two piglets did not have any commercial value.
He told the jury he did not want to be acquitted based on a technicality, but hoped they would make a ruling that would make a difference to animal rights.
“If you defend our right to give aid to dying animals, defend the right of all citizens to aid dying and sick and injured animals, there’s somethings that will happen in this world. Companies will be a little more compassionate to the creatures under their stewardship. Governments will be a little more open to animal cruelty complaints. And maybe, just maybe, a baby pig like Lilly won’t have to starve to death on the floor of a factory farm,” Hsiung said.
He argued that theft and burglary are not the right way to charge him in this case, and suggested different steps should be taken to address actions like this, including companies and governments listening to their suggestions or charges for trespassing.
I’m now back at home, processing what I saw and heard at the trial, as the jury in St. George is deliberating the verdict. I very much hope that the little exposure they received to the horrendous evil that is factory farming will persuade them of the negligible value this “property” has for its “owners”. I only wish they could see the piglets now. One member of the legal team, who lives in Colorado, gets to visit with the pigs once ever few weeks, and reports that they are lovely and doing very well. I also hope Wayne and Paul made the right call. We had some conversations about whether going with the mistrial was “good for the movement” or not; both parties made numerous mistakes, as is inevitable in the course of a complicated trial, and those would not be repeated in the second trial. But a well educated, curious jury is also something that is difficult to give up. Having done my very small part in this case, I’m keeping my fingers crossed for the right outcome. If you want more coverage, following @SmithfieldTrial on twitter, as well as journalist Marina Bolotnikova and activist Jeremy Beckham, will be useful, or use the hashtag #SmithfieldTrial.