OAKLAND — Two very different views of what happened after Earth First! activists Judi Bari and Darryl Cherney were injured in a 1990 car bombing have emerged as lawyers laid out their case for federal jurors this week.
An attorney for Cherney and Bari’s estate — Bari died of cancer in 1997 — says FBI agents and Oakland police were “out to get” the radical group Earth First and tried to frame them for the bombing.
But attorneys for the lawmen on Wednesday portrayed them as dedicated professionals.
“What you won’t hear is evidence that any of these six people had any hostility to preserving the environment,” said attorney Joseph Sher, who is representing the six current and former FBI agents being sued by Bari and Cherney. “What you won’t hear is that the information the FBI shared with the Oakland police was false.”
Bari and Cherney were driving in Oakland in May 1990 when a bomb went off under Bari, who was at the wheel. She suffered a crushed pelvis and Cherney suffered cuts.
After the bombing, the two were arrested and named as the main suspects. However, the district attorney later determined there wasn’t enough evidence to prosecute and no one was charged in the bombing.
Bari and Cherney subsequently filed a civil suit claiming false arrests, illegal searches, slanderous statements and conspiracy.
A key issue is an assertion by law enforcement early on that the bomb was in the back seat of the car and Bari and Cherney had to have known it was there, said Dennis Cunningham, who is representing Cherney and Bari’s estate. In fact, the bomb was hidden under Bari’s seat, Cunningham said in his opening statement Tuesday.
He said the way the bomb was rigged to go off, Cherney and Bari would “have had to be crazy” to drive around on top of it.
Officials also said a bag of nails found in Bari’s car matched those taped to the bomb. However, the nails on the bomb were of a different type, said Cunningham.
One of the first witnesses was Shannon Marr, who was driving the car ahead of Bari’s on the day of the bombing. At the time, Marr was a 19-year-old working with a pro-environment group called Seeds of Peace.
Marr cried softly Wednesday as she recalled getting out of her car after the explosion.
“It was one of those weird times when everything just turns into a slow-motion movie,” she said. “I went around and talked to Judi. She was just saying she couldn’t breathe.”
Cunningham showed the jurors photos of the battered Subaru and its ripped-open front seat.
Marr said she was taken to the Oakland police department and questioned by officers Robert Chenault and Michael Sitterud.
She said she talked to the officers for about an hour but the interview ended abruptly when Sitterud told her, “We know that you planted the bomb.”
Marr said she demanded a lawyer and a phone call but was told she didn’t have those rights because she was not under arrest.
After that, Marr said, she was left in the locked interview room. Her voice trembling with tears, she recalled pounding on the door and yelling to be let out. She said Sitterud came back at one point and said, “What’s the matter with you, little girl? Is your conscience getting to you?”
Marr said she was not allowed to leave the station until the end of the day.
Maria Bee, who is representing the former and current Oakland officers — one has retired and one now works for a different city — described the three as careful policemen who acted in good faith.
“Each and every decision the Oakland investigators made was reasonable and proper based on the information that they had developed and what they had been told,” she said.
The case, being heard in Oakland federal district court, is expected to last about eight weeks.
Two of the 12 jurors indicated Wednesday they wanted to be excused, one due to potentially lost pay and another due to problems understanding English. U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken told lawyers outside the presence of the jury that she may excuse those jurors if it becomes obvious they are not needed — a verdict can be returned by fewer than 12 jurors. However, she told the jurors in question it was too late to restart the selection process and they would have to serve as agreed.
As the trial began Wednesday, Sher acknowledged the disparate views being presented of what took place in May 1990.
“Your task, I think is a bit like putting together a jigsaw puzzle,” he told the jury. The difference, he said, is “you don’t get a picture in advance. You get several pictures.”