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Earth First! activist testifies against FBI, OPD

By Chris Nichols Daily Planet Staff
Tuesday May 07, 2002

Earth First! activist Darryl Cherney took the stand for the first time Monday in his high-profile case against members of the FBI and Oakland Police Department. 

Cherney and fellow Earth First! activist Judi Bari were injured and arrested as suspects in a car bomb explosion in Oakland in 1990 before later having charges against them dropped due to lack of evidence. Their suit claims that law enforcement officials mishandled their case and wrongfully arrested them. 

During his first day of testimony, Cherney explained that he and Bari, who died of cancer in 1997, had been romantically involved as well as allied in their legal battle against the FBI and OPD. 

“We were Siamese twins joined at the lawsuit,” said Cherney. 

Dennis Cunningham, lead attorney for Earth First!, questioned Cherney regarding his past and the nature of the Earth First! movement, perceived by some members of the FBI and OPD as an environmental terrorist organization. 

Cherney detailed his work as a politician, folk singer and environmental activist with the Earth First! movement, a movement without strict organization or a board of directors. He explained that Earth First! participated in rallies, demonstrations and campaigns against local logging companies such as Maxam Corporation and Pacific Lumber Company. 

Susan Jordan, former attorney for Bari, also testified Monday as one of the plaintiff's final witnesses in the case. Cunningham questioned Jordan regarding Bari's condition following the bombing.  

According to Jordan, Bari was under extreme distress following her injuries and repeated searches of her residence by the FBI and OPD. 

Robert Sher, lead counsel for the FBI, questioned Jordan regarding Bari's request for immunity during the investigation. Jordan explained that Bari wanted to consult with her attorney and have questioning videotaped.  

Monday's testimony also included a videotape of FBI Agent Walter Hemje, supervisor of the Oakland bomb investigation.  

Cunningham questioned Hemje as to whether the FBI regarded Bari as a witness or victim or suspect in the case. According to Hemje, Bari was regarded as both a witness and victim as seen appropriate during the investigation. Cunningham continued to question Hemje regarding Bari's status in the investigation in an attempt to prove that Bari remained the only suspect in the case despite the fact that charges against her had been previously dropped due to a lack of evidence. 

Cunningham also questioned Hemje regarding efforts made by the FBI to evaluate death threats made against Bari. According to Hemje, a number of the threats presented in case held little value. When asked whether a picture of Bari with rifle cross hairs across her face might have been a threat, Hemje explained it could be perceived that way.  

In an attempt to refute charges the FBI failed to investigate other leads, Hemje testified that many of Bari's associates with Earth First! were uncooperative during the investigation. Hemje claimed that both Betty Ball and Michael Sweeney, associates of Bari, would not speak to investigators without first speaking with an attorney.  

Under questioning from Sher, Hemje also claimed that evidence in the form of an anonymous letter submitted to the Santa Rosa Press Democrat claiming responsibility for the bombing was less than authentic. 

"My recollection is that it was contrived," said Hemje. 

Hemje further disputed claims that the FBI was not interested in following leads in the case by explaining that not all leads were recorded.  

"We don't keep a record of weak leads. If it is a strong lead then we will," said Hemje. 

Cunningham finished his questioning of Hemje by asking whether there ever was evidence at any time during the investigation to show Bari to be a suspect in the case. Hemje responded by saying no.  

Cherney's testimony will conclude Tuesday and will be followed by three additional witnesses and finally a videotape of testimony given by Bari. According to Cherney, attorneys for the defense did not want the video tape to air, feeling that it would be very emotional and moving for the jury. 

Cherney added that attorneys for the defense object to almost each point on the video, interrupting each sentence in Bari's testimony. 

The video of Bari will conclude the plaintiff's portion of the case. Attorneys for the FBI and OPD plan to call approximately 18 witnesses in the next three to four days. Jury deliberations are expected to start by the middle of next week. 

The trial takes place at the Federal Courthouse, 1301 Clay Street, from 8:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., Monday through Thursday.