“Operation Backfire” Plea Bargains: Admission of Guilt, or a Survival Strategy?

by Will Potter on October 7, 2006

in Activism & Activists' Response,Terrorism Court Cases

Two more Green Scare defendants pleaded guilty this week to involvement in property crimes claimed by the Earth Liberation Front, including a 2001 arson at the University of Washington’s Center for Urban Horticulture. In return for the pleas, and for cooperating with the Feds in a broader investigation, Lacey Phillabaum and Jennifer Kolar received significantly reduced sentences. According to Hal Bernton and Christine Clarridge of The Seattle Times:

…prosecutors will recommend that Kolar, 33, of Seattle, receive a federal prison sentence of five-to-seven years, and a three-to-five-year term for Phillabaum, 31, of Spokane…

Both women faced a minimum of 30 years in prison if they had gone to trial and been convicted of all counts listed in their plea agreements.

One of the defendants in the case, Briana Waters, has not accepted any plea bargains, and is not cooperating with the government.

So what do these pleas mean for Briana and other “Operation Backfire” defendants, like Daniel McGowan, who maintain their innocence?

It certainly doesn’t help their case, and if anything takes their situations from bad to worse. The mainstream press has largely bought the government line that it’s a wrap: the Feds caught the “terrorists,” these pleas confirm that, and it’s only a matter of time before the others cave and admit their guilt.

But it’s not that simple. We need to remember, in all of these cases, that the acceptance of plea bargains doesn’t necessarily mean the defendants committed these crimes, and it certainly doesn’t convict the other defendants.

Yes, yes, I know they pleaded guilty. But legal decisions in court cases are often made for pragmatic reasons, not factual reasons: the criminal justice system is often about evaluating options in light of other options, taking the lesser of two evils.

That’s especially the case now, in this Green Scare. These activists were rounded up as part of the sweeping “Operation Backfire,” charged with serious federal crimes, and repeatedly referenced in the press as “eco-terrorists” (or, at best, “alleged eco-terrorists”). Meanwhile, Congress is considering legislation that would wrap up non-violent crimes as “terrorism” simply because of their political motive, the FBI labels saboteurs the number one domestic terrorist threat, and grand jury witch hunts around the country are targeting well-known activists.

The War on Terrorism has come home, and these activists know it. They’ve felt it. They could spend the rest of their lives in cages because of it.

I’m tempted to use a David versus Goliath analogy here, but these Davids are facing the biggest, wealthiest, most powerful Goliaths the world has ever known and they don’t even have a slingshot.

In this political context, it’s certainly reasonable to think that these defendants chose to plead guilty not because they hope to atone for their sins but because they convinced themselves it is a reasonable path, if not the only path, out of the fire.

Some of these defendants, though, haven’t chosen that path. They’re facing the same fear, the same Goliaths, and they refuse to bow out. In this Green Scare they’re guilty until proven innocent and deserve, at bare minimum, that we give them the benefit of the doubt and a critical evaluation of these guilty pleas.

Bargaining hasn’t eased these burdens–it has only unloaded them onto other shoulders.

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