By Crescenzo Vellucci
The Vanguard Sacramento Bureau Chief
SANTA ROSA, CA – In what is the second trial involving the “open rescue” of factory farm animals in California this year, animal rights activist and lawyer Wayne Hsiung is facing misdemeanor trespass and felony conspiracy charges this week in Santa Rosa County Superior Court for the open rescue of animals in Sonoma County in 2018 and 2019.
Pretrial motions have been at the center of the case for the week—in fact, much of September—and they’re not done yet, although jury selection is expected to begin either late this week or next.
In March, a Central Valley jury in Merced County Superior Court found Hollywood actress and “Baywatch” television star Alexandra Paul and San Francisco Bay Area activist Alicia Santurio not guilty of misdemeanor theft of two slaughterhouse-bound chickens.
Paul and Santurio admitted they “rescued” two chickens, Ethan and Jax, from a truck in front of a Foster Farms slaughterhouse on Sept. 28, 2021, because the animals were suffering. https://www.davisvanguard.org/2023/03/jury-finds-baywatch-actress-and-bay-advocate-not-guilty-of-theft-for-rescuing-injured-chickens-from-outside-foster-farms-slaughterhouse/
Although the Merced case took nearly two weeks, the Santa Rosa court case is taking much longer, although it now only involves one defendant—others charged took plea deals—and the court appears to be whittling down possible defenses the lone defendant can use and the witnesses that might be called.
Direct Action Everywhere (DxE). citing victories in trials of activists who did open rescues in St. George, UT and Merced, CA, said “if this series of legal wins continues, it could open the floodgates to a new view of animals under the law: as legal persons, not property.”
Hsiung is proceeding to trial as his own attorney, facing multiple felony conspiracy charges for his involvement in mass protests where hundreds of activists openly rescued animals at factory farms in Sonoma County in 2018 and 2019.
More than 100 people affiliated with DxE were arrested on felony charges initially after, according to DxE, they provided “emergency medical aid” to “sick and suffering animals,” because, they claim, “county and state authorities ignored repeated reports of criminal animal abuse at these facilities.”
But, the defense took big hits late last week when Judge Laura Passaglia McCarthy excluded two defense witnesses, described as “key” by DxE.
Excluded were Dr. Laura Dixon, an animal scientist specializing in the poultry industry, whom the defense intended to call as an expert witness, and Dr. Armaiti May, a veterinarian who made an assessment regarding animal cruelty at Reichardt Duck Farm in 2014. The judge said conditions in 2014 are irrelevant to the conditions in 2019, reported DxE.
Passaglia McCarthy also Thursday said the defense’s Jonathan Frohnmayer, a lawyer and former defendant in the case, could only “testify about his observations at the demonstrations including what he saw Hsiung doing, but not about his personal experiences contacting authorities regarding animal cruelty,” said DxE.
The judge did grant a defense request for Sunrise Farms and Reichardt Duck Farm documents of the conditions at their facilities, but agreed with the prosecution to a protective order, preventing the documents from being shared with the public.
Judge Passaglia McCarthy also has leaned out in favor of the prosecution in several other motions by the prosecution, said DxE, including prohibiting evidence from an investigation and rescue at McCoy’s Poultry, and a Sonoma County Animal Services’ report that corroborates the defense’s claims of criminal animal cruelty.
The court has barred comments from previous co-defendants, other activists involved not charged and DxE animal rescuers who have been acquitted in other court cases.
The judge did, however, rule the defense could use “mistake of fact” as a defense in the case of Sunrise Farms, where the defendant said he did not believe he was being ordered to leave the premises.
And, the judge granted a defense motion allowing the use of the “mistake of law” defense under CA Penal Code section 597(e), which the defense has claimed gives it the “right to enter private property to aid animals deprived of food and water.”
The prosecution opposed the ruling, stating concerns about the “gruesome” images of animals that might be shown.
Hsiung’s charges, according to court documents, relate specifically to a May 29, 2018, rescue at Sunrise Farms, an egg supplier to Whole Foods and Costco, and a June 3, 2019, rescue and occupation at Reichardt, the largest duck farm in California.
DxE said its activists took action in “broad daylight to openly rescue animals, supported by a legal opinion on the right to rescue animals from abuse under the doctrine of legal necessity (now barred by the judge) and California law. They removed 37 sick hens from Sunrise and 32 sick ducks from Reichardt.”
The defense maintains the mass open rescue at Sunrise was “prompted by investigations that occurred in 2017 and 2018, which found that despite Proposition 2 banning intensive confinement, Sunrise was confining tens of thousands of birds in towering 15-foot-tall rows of tightly packed cages, inside of which many were sick, dying, and dead.”
DxE charged investigators “found violations of California’s animal cruelty statute, Penal Code section 597, including injured birds who were unable to access food or water.
DxE noted, at Reichardt Duck Farm, an investigation by Mercy for Animals in 2014, and another by DxE in 2019, “revealed violations of animal cruelty law, including diseased ducks left on their backs, unable to get up, and consequently unable to reach food or water.”
Last Thursday, according to a statement released by Direct Action Everywhere (DxE), Priya Sawhney, the last defendant other than Hsiung, took a plea deal—diversion and charges dismissed in exchange for community service and two years of probation.
“There were some strategic disagreements between my attorneys and me about prioritizing my best interests versus the interests of the animals,” said Sawhney. “This case is bigger than me or any of us. It’s about suffering animals who deserve to be rescued. I trust Wayne to represent them as well as anyone could.”