COURT WATCH: Lawyer Found Guilty of Felony for Rescuing Injured Animals, Locked Up after 2-Month Trial, 6 Days of Jury Deliberation

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By Crescenzo Vellucci

The Vanguard Sacramento Bureau Chief

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SANTA ROSA, CA – Attorney Wayne Hsiung was found guilty Thursday by a jury here in Santa Rosa County Superior Court after a two-month trial—including six days of jury deliberation—of felony conspiracy and misdemeanor trespass charges linked to nonviolent mass “open rescues” of injured animals at Sunrise (chicken) Farms in Petaluma, Sonoma County May 29, 2018.

Hsiung, representing himself at trial, was immediately cuffed and taken to jail to await a sentencing hearing at the end of November, according to a statement by supporters. The court did not grant Hsiung bail until his sentencing.

The jury hung on similar charges related to an open rescue at a 2019 protest at another Sonoma County facility, the Reichardt Duck Farm.

Earlier in the week, the jury told the court it could not come to decision on three of the four original counts against Hsiung, but the judge sent the jury back to try once again, and Thursday it came back with guilty verdicts.

Hsiung, co-founder of the international animal rights network Direct Action Everywhere (DxE), a group that asserts it’s “leading a campaign to enshrine the legal ’Right to Rescue’ sick and injured animals from commercial operations.”

DxE said Hsiung “plans to appeal the conviction in Sonoma based on several rulings by Judge Laura Passaglia that constitute prejudicial and reversible error, including the exclusion of almost all photo and video evidence showing animal cruelty at the factory farms where the rescues occurred.”

In a statement, DxE said, “We are outraged that animal rescuer Wayne Hsiung was cuffed and taken into custody after being convicted of felony conspiracy and two counts of misdemeanor trespass for helping animals facing criminal abuse. He has a sentencing hearing set for November 30th. He will be in jail until then, without bail.”

Hsiung’s conviction, said DxE, follows two “groundbreaking acquittals in other open rescue cases,” including one last years when Hsiung was acquitted of felony burglary and theft in a piglet rescue case in St. George, UT.

Earlier this year, former Baywatch television star Alexandra Paul and another activist were found not guilty in the theft charges of injured animals from a processing plant in Merced, CA. 

“Activists have won and will continue to win cases based on a legal right to rescue animals from abuse,” said law professor and civil rights attorney Justin Marceau. “No legal strategy ever works 100 percent of the time, but this conviction is less a setback than an opportunity to litigate the legal status of animals in the appellate court and in the court of public opinion.”

“More than 100 people affiliated with DxE were arrested on felony charges for their part in nonviolent demonstrations (over the past five years), where activists provided emergency medical aid to sick and injured animals at Sunrise Farms (a Whole Foods and Costco egg supplier), Petaluma Poultry (a subsidiary of poultry giant Perdue), and Reichardt Duck Farm (a major duck meat supplier),” said DxE.

Added DxE, 38 chickens and 32 ducks were removed from the facilities by the activists (after) after county and state authorities ignored repeated reports of criminal animal abuse at these facilities.”

Much of Hsiung’s planned defense was thwarted by the judge, according to court documents, including Hsiung’s attempted use of key defenses, including the right to trespass under CA Penal Code section 597(e), an animal cruelty statute, and the defense of necessity, the committing of a potential crime to prevent cruelty to animals.

The jury never heard these defenses after Judge Passaglia prohibited Hsiung from arguing either defense before the jury, and “only permitted him to discuss 597e in the context of a mistake of law defense, pursuant to which Hsiung argued that he had a good faith belief that his actions were legal,” said DxE.

The defense called 12 witnesses in addition to Hsiung’s testimony, including others who participated in the rescues, Hasting’s law professor Hadar Aviram, and veterinarian Dr. Sherstin Rosenberg. 

“Every witness who participated in the actions testified about their good faith belief in the legal right to enter private property to aid animals, based on legal opinions they reviewed from Professor Hadar Aviram or former federal prosecutor Bonnie Klapper,” explained DxE.

Hsiung, who represented himself, was also unable to speak to the news media before or during the trial under a gag order issued by the judge even after the ACLU urged her to not violate Hsiung’s First Amendment rights.

Supporters also said the judge erred by prohibiting the defense from “showing the jury photo and video evidence of animal cruelty that disproved these testimonies, except on a few limited occasions for direct impeachment.”

The defense noted, “Michael Weber, co-owner of Sunrise, testified, ‘There were no sick and injured animals on the ranch in any of the buildings’ on May 29, 2018. He likened the chances of finding a sick or injured chicken at the facility to the chances of finding a polar bear there. 

“However, Hsiung presented a video taken 11 days prior to the action showing a hen with an eye tumor, struggling to walk or reach food, which resulted from overcrowding-induced pecking at the facility. Weber also described the chickens’ environment as ‘stress-free’ and ‘humane,’ but during cross-examination, he admitted that birds regularly cannibalize each other due to stress and disease.”

DxE said after the verdict, “By appealing the guilty verdict, Hsiung has the chance to establish case law in the appellate court…(to) not only vindicate his actions but also provide a stronger legal foundation for the defense of animals in future cases.” 

“While this verdict presents a short-term challenge, it also marks a critical step on the journey to strengthen legal rights for animals,” says DxE lead organizer and former defendant, Almira Tanner.

DxE said the “mass open rescue at Sunrise Farms was prompted by investigations that occurred in 2016 through 2018, which found that despite Proposition 2 banning intensive confinement of animals on factory farms, Sunrise was confining tens of thousands of birds in towering 15-foot tall rows of tightly packed cages, inside of which many birds were sick, dying, and dead.”

DxE maintains, “Investigators also found violations of California’s animal cruelty statute, Penal Code 597, including injured birds who were unable to access food or water. On the day of the Sunrise action in May 2018, (a police officer) promised Hsiung that they could walk through the farm together to provide aid and remove any sick or injured birds. However, no inspection ever occurred, and body camera footage shown in court depicted the officers admitting to merely “checking a box” instead of taking the activists’ animal cruelty concerns seriously.”

DxE and Hsiung also charged, “At Reichardt Duck Farm, investigations by Mercy for Animals in 2014 and by DxE in 2019 revealed systemic violations of animal cruelty law, including diseased ducks stuck on their backs, unable to get up, and consequently unable to reach food or water. Zoe Rosenberg, a defense witness and DxE investigator, testified that she collected deceased ducks from the facility and sent them for necropsy tests that revealed a fatal disease was spreading in the facility, though she was prohibited by the court from telling the jury the name of the disease or describing it.”

Now, even after the five-year prosecution of Hsiung, DxE said its investigators “continue to document animal cruelty at Sunrise Farms and Reichardt Duck Farm and to rescue individuals in need of emergency medical care from both facilities,” claiming after the verdict was announced, “DxE activists went straight from the courtroom to the Sonoma County District Attorney’s Office to once again report criminal animal cruelty at factory farms in the county.”

DxE said activists “delivered a letter with their findings, including photos taken at the two facilities in recent weeks. The letter also included 2021 hidden-camera footage showing Sunrise employees killing birds by breaking their necks, despite company owner Michael Weber’s testimony in the trial that they don’t use this kill method known as cervical dislocation.” 

DxE added “new footage at Reichardt shows that four years after their action and nine years after MFA first exposed the company’s cruelty, many ducks are still stuck on their backs unable to stand or access food and water.”

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