By Crescenzo Vellucci
Vanguard Sacramento Bureau Chief
MERCED, CA – A Central Valley jury here in Merced County Superior Court Friday found Hollywood actress/“Baywatch” television star Alexandra Paul and San Francisco Bay Area activist Alicia Santurio not guilty of misdemeanor theft of two slaughterhouse-bound chickens, after more than six hours and parts of two days of deliberation. The trial and motions took nearly two weeks.
The afternoon jury declaration appeared to surprise most everyone in the courtroom after Paul and Santurio admitted they took – “rescued” – Ethan and Jax from a truck in front of a Foster Farms slaughterhouse on Sept. 28, 2021 because the animals were suffering.
They even published a video of their chicken “rescue” at https://youtu.be/LxnIwWmFd1E
“This is how we shape history, by using our privileges to confront unjust industries that exploit animals,” said Paul.
“This is a victory for Ethan, Jax, and all other living beings subjected to abuse by corporations like Foster Farms,” said Alicia Santurio. “I have so much love for the chickens in my family and I want all animals to experience that safety and respect.”
“Now that the Merced District Attorney’s office is done wasting resources prosecuting animal rescuers, I hope they’ll realize their error and start prosecuting the real criminal, Foster Farms, which is violating animal cruelty laws on a daily basis,” said Almira Tanner, lead organizer of Direct Action Everywhere.
Merced County Judge Paul Lo thanked the jurors for their deliberation and said, “This is not a case about just two chickens. It’s about very important principles.”
“Today’s verdict represents an important, legal affirmation of the right to rescue farmed animals who are suffering, diseased, or otherwise in danger of an inhumane death,” said law professor and civil rights attorney Justin Marceau. “Commonsense and basic decency dictate that when another being is suffering, we should provide aid or care for them when we are able to do so.”
The jury’s reasons for the not guilty verdict are unknown, but although the judge wouldn’t approve of the “necessity defense,” which would have allowed the accused to claim they were trying to prevent a “greater harm” by rescuing ill chickens, that message was loud and clear in the courtroom when Paul and Santurio were asked why they did what they did.
Also, the defense did claim wins in other motions, including an advice of counsel defense, that immunizes an accused if they did “not breach the obligation of good faith and fair dealing if (they) reasonably relied on the advice of (their) lawyer, and mistake of law defense, which, among other things, is a defense that claims an accused “made an honest or good faith mistake about the law.
Last year, a Utah jury issued a groundbreaking “not guilty” verdict for two Direct Action Everywhere (DxE) investigators who rescued sick piglets from a Smithfield Foods factory pig farm. The Merced case marks the second acquittal for open rescue activists in what DxE says could be a series of legal wins that opens the floodgates to a new view of animals under the law.
Both accused have admitted on the stand they took the Foster Farms “property” to prevent a “greater harm,” describing the chickens as sick and unable to stand, something attested to by a veterinarian witness.
Paul, a “Baywatch” television star who has appeared in prominent television and screen movies for several decades, said previously, “We published (a video) within an hour (of the open rescue) with both my name and Alicia Santurio’s name attached to it because we believe what we’re doing is legal and morally right. We’re rescuing sick chickens from a factory farm that has a history of abusing them.”
Her testimony this week didn’t vary, noting to the jury, “I knew it was a Foster Farms truck; they treated (the chickens) like garbage,” adding she wouldn’t have given the sick chicken (she took) back to “someone who treated him so badly (chicken).”
Paul argued, “I believe factory farms can make companies a lot of money. I made a judgment call (to rescue the chicken). I take full responsibility.”
Paul said that “scalding animals alive is cruel,” and explained to the court what “open rescue” is, at least to her. “We are completely transparent to what we are doing…we believe what we do is legal,” said Paul, noting she and her co-accused didn’t wear masks and published the video of their deed.
“We only rescue animals who need us the most…(they) best tell the story of what’s happening behind closed doors. I saw open rescue as the best way to alleviate suffering,” Paul said, noting whistleblower footage she saw showed chickens “boiled alive and buried alive and nobody had done anything in last six years” since a 2015 video reportedly led to Foster Farms promising to treat the animals better.
“Who’s going to do it if not us, if not I…if the government isn’t doing it or law enforcement isn’t doing it,” explained Paul.
The actress maintained in court, “I believe animal protection laws protect me,” citing legal opinions that suggest when an animal is suffering, “I would have right to rescue that animal.
“I saw footage of animals treated cruelly at that facility,” added Paul, carefully noting she did not want to deprive Foster Farms of their property, but only had the “intent” to “help an animal…I believe it was legal and morally right.”
She added, in another action, she rescued a chicken she found in a dumpster where it had been thrown away, while it was alive, noting “all the bodies…lots of factory farms are not following the law…government agencies were not doing anything.”
“We all can agree boiling animals alive and burying them alive is not right,” she added, explaining investigators have tried to speak with Foster Farms and the treatment of animals but “they haven’t responded.”
She said sick and injured chickens “should be taken off the food chain” but instead workers – “it’s not their fault; the lines go too fast” – throw live chickens on the ground, and abuse them.
She added, “We had a camera because I do open rescue and we want to show the world what’s happening … because we’re doing a legal and moral thing.
“My intent is to rescue animals…we believe we have a right to rescue animals companies are neglecting.” The animals are “being abused and really need help. What I’m doing is preventing a greater harm,” she said.
Santurio testified about “animal cruelty and neglect” she has seen inside Foster Farms factory farms during investigations at five different facilities.
Wednesday, Sherstin Rosenberg DVM, consulted on the treatment plan for Jax and Ethan (the latter later died)—the two freed chickens—and said both birds were infected with an “extremely contagious coronavirus called infectious bronchitis virus (IBV),” and that other pathogens found on Ethan posed a risk to public health.
“Ordinary people want to see animals treated with respect and they know that the true crime is hurting animals, not rescuing them,” said Paul.
“There is something deeply wrong with our current system when those who help animals face time in jail and are treated like criminals, while those who harm them make millions in profit,” said Santurio.
Defense counsel argued the accused “acted in an emergency to prevent a significant evil,” citing CA law that “explicitly authorizes…trespass to provide an animal with necessary food and water,” and the “needless suffering of animals (the freed chickens) is a significant evil that public policy aims to curtail.”
The defense also cited several examples of laws in CA being broken to protect the well-being of animals, and argued in its motion that the accused’s “conduct was not pre-empted by explicit public policy. Rather, it was entirely consistent with California’s public policy to minimize animal cruelty.
“Upon looking inside the transport truck, Ms. Santurio saw Ethan ‘downed’ with splayed legs. This led her to immediately believe, based on her experience caring for similar birds, that he was suffering from acute pain and distress,” the defense argued.
On the day Santurio and Paul rescued two birds, DxE released hidden camera footage from “inside the slaughterhouse showing chickens routinely missing the stun bath and a device designed to cut their necks, leaving it to workers to identify conscious birds before their evisceration, at a speed of 140 birds per minute.”
According to a story in The Intercept, an animal rights group, Mercy for Animals, in 2015, said it “documented workers throwing live chickens against metal shackles, birds being scalded alive, and other treatment that the group argued amounted to animal cruelty.
DxE’s new footage, said The Intercept, shows Foster Farms, California’s largest poultry producer, “continuing to engage in similar behavior that activists allege amounts to cruel treatment of live chickens. Foster Farms, which was recertified by the AHA earlier this year, has been on the receiving end of millions of dollars in state and local subsidies to expand its product lines in California.”
The Intercept, after it viewed the footage, said it “shows workers throwing live chickens on the concrete floor; discarded yet conscious birds under the weight of one another; some chickens missing electrical waterbaths designed to stun them before slaughter — all under the supervision of employees working dangerous and long shifts in the dark.”
DxE alleges the footage details “a violation of California code outlawing animal cruelty, Foster Farms’ AHA certification, and the company’s own policy to raise chickens free from hunger, discomfort, pain, cages, and distress.”
The accused took their actions to “prevent a greater danger” because authorities failed, said the defense, to do their duty, noting that after underground video showed the treatment of the chickens, Mercy for Animals complained to the Federal Trade Commission that Foster Farms’ labeling of its products as certified by the American Humane Association, or AHA, deceived consumers. The agency declined to take action.”
The defense maintained in its motion the caged chickens “would not be provided with such care and worse, would likely suffer unlawful animal cruelty…a factfinder could conclude (the) actions in rescuing (the chickens) were necessary to prevent the significant evil of unnecessary animal suffering (and) There were no adequate legal alternatives.”
The defense added the chickens’ “obvious condition created the immediate need for rescue and care… (an) analogous situation to an overheating dog left unattended in a car. A reasonable person would act to save that animal and California law explicitly provides them immunity from criminal liability.”