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Judge is reluctant to allow claim by DeChristopher

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Tim DeChristopher, right, an environmental activist, leaves federal court on Tuesday with his lawyer, Ron Yengich.

Tim DeChristopher, right, an environmental activist, leaves federal court on Tuesday with his lawyer, Ron Yengich.

Keith Johnson, Deseret News

While his supporters and attorneys were likening Tim DeChristopher to prominent historical social advocates, a judge wants more evidence before determining whether DeChristopher's actions can be defended as civil disobedience.

DeChristopher's defense argued Friday that DeChristopher acted out of necessity to prevent illegal government action, making a "choice of evils" on a December day last year when he decided to submit bogus bids for oil and gas leases on Bureau of Land Management land as an act of protest.

DeChristopher won 14 parcels of land totaling $1.7 million that he never intended to buy and was later indicted for providing a false statement and violating the Federal Onshore Oil and Gas Leasing Reform Act.

His attorney, Ron Yengich, said DeChristopher's protest was "not typical" but was done out of necessity as he was seeking to combat an outgoing government he believed was engaged in illegal acts, and "there was no other option in his mind."

But that is one area where the prosecutors say the claim of a necessity defense falls flat. Assistant U.S. Attorney John Huber said there are four "crystal-clear" elements necessary to claim a defense of necessity and one of those is that the defendant had "no legal alternatives."

The prosecutor reiterated that there is always a legal alternative. He also said there was no "real emergency or imminent harm" in DeChristopher's situation, which is also required to claim a defense of necessity.

Huber gave the example of prisoners in a burning prison who have to escape to save their lives. In that instance, he said the actions of the inmates, while illegal, would be seen as necessary to save them from danger.

Prosecutors said that there is "no case law from the circuit courts or supreme courts that allows necessity defense in protest cases like this."

Judge Dee Benson asked the defense why they failed to provide more written support for their claim in their brief. Yengich said this was a conscious decision done in an effort to provoke a case based on evidence rather than written materials. He said he wants a jury to hear about the act from DeChristopher himself so it could understand that what he did wasn't criminal but nonviolent civil disobedience.

"I want 12 people, tried and true, basic American citizens to listen to another American citizen say, 'I'd rather go to jail than see that land sold,' " Yengich said.

The case seemed relatively clear in the mind of Benson, who said based on what he's read and heard, he "wouldn't hold out a lot of hope for an in-court evidentiary hearing" to determine whether DeChristopher had acted out of necessity.

"I'm reluctant to open my courtroom to a lengthy hearing on global warming and environmental concerns when this is a case based on simple criminal actions," the judge said.

And that's what the prosecutors say DeChristopher's goal is. While the defense says prosecutors are "afraid" a jury will acquit DeChristopher, prosecutors say DeChristopher just wants to use the court as a forum for his environmental views.

"It's apparent DeChristopher wants to stay in court and broadcast his philosophy for you and all the reporters. He wants an audience for that," Huber said.

Yengich said those who label DeChristopher as an opportunist need to realize that civil-rights heroine Rosa Parks and St. Francis of Assisi were also seen as opportunists in their time. He said the real opportunists were those selling U.S. land for money.

DeChristopher, a University of Utah student, said he has ample support from people across the nation who "share my values, my concerns, my convictions."

One such supporter, Jessi Carrier, said the two had taken a class together titled History of American Social Movements. The class helped explain his actions, but Carrier said she was still "shocked" at his actions but also was "really proud."

"I support his moral courage," Carrier said. "He did what we all need to do. Climate change is the biggest challenge of our generation."

Benson gave the defense until Oct. 25 to submit a written argument to provide more support for its claim.

e-mail: emorgan@desnews.com