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Jury awards Earth First! $4.4 million

By Chris Nichols, Daily Planet Staff
Wednesday June 12, 2002

A jury awarded $4.4 million to Earth First! activists Judi Bari and Darryl Cherney, environmentalists who sued the FBI and Oakland Police for false arrest, illegal search, slanderous statements and conspiracy. 

Lawyers for Bari and Cherney called the decision a huge success despite pending claims and a defeat on charges of conspiracy.  

“It’s really beyond our wildest dreams,” said Darlene Comingore, executive for the estate of Bari, who died of cancer in 1997. “The jury got the part that (the FBI and OPD) violated their First and Fourth Amendment rights. We hope all the people out there who think they can violate our civil rights will think again.”  

In May 1990 Cherney and Bari were injured when a bomb exploded in a car while they were driving in Oakland. 

Bari suffered a crushed pelvis.  

Hours later the two were arrested because investigators said the pair carried the bomb for use in an act of environmental sabotage.  

The jury Tuesday ruled that six of the seven defendants violated the First and Fourth amendment rights of Bari, including false arrest and unlawful search twice. However, the jury was undecided on the claim involving a violation of Cherney’s Fourth Amendment rights. The 10-member jury ruled that the defendants did not conspire to violate the First Amendment rights of either Bari or Cherney. 

The plaintiff and defendants have 10 days to appeal. An undecided verdict will likely generate an appeal, lawyers said. 

U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken read the 18-page verdict that included compensatory damages and punitive damages on all claims. Tuesday marked the end to 17 days of jury deliberation and more than 12 years since the ordeal started. 

“This sends a message to the FBI to the extent that the American public understands that the FBI is an agency that can’t be trusted,” said Cherney. “After 90 years of political oppression by the FBI and the fact that our hands were tied in this case makes this even more incredible.” 

Cherney argued that important evidence involving the FBI’s counterintelligence program was not allowed in court and that the jury was prevented from hearing evidence of a conspiracy by the FBI. He said the case serves as an example in current and future investigations into the FBI. 

According to Cherney, if the defendants appeal he could be forced to wait two to three years before collecting damages. Cherney said that Bari pledged before she died to have half of any money awarded given to the Redwood Justice Fund. Cherney plans to use his money to further protect the environment. 

“I plan to use these funds for environmental non-profit organizations and for causes I think will make this world a better place,” Cherney said. 

Lead counsel for the FBI Robert Sher wanted to learn more about the jury’s verdict and its unresolved claims before deciding whether to appeal. 

“I’ve got to see how it breaks down,” Sher said. 

According to Dennis Cunningham, lead counsel for Bari and Cherney, his clients have more on which to base an appeal than the defense. “I think we have more to appeal than they do,” he said.  

Cunningham criticized the FBI. 

“This sends a message that the FBI has got to change their view, that they’re doing exactly the wrong thing. They’re not about fighting terrorism, it’s about suppressing dissent,” said Cunningham. 

Lawyer for the plaintiff’s Tony Serra said the case represents an important victory for civil rights advocates. “This case was a case of FBI falsity and FBI cover-up,” Serra said. “That can’t be tolerated. Our civil rights are more significant than that.” 

Dozens of supporters and members of the media gathered outside of the Oakland Federal Courthouse to greet Cherney and attorneys for the plaintiffs Tuesday afternoon. 

For Earth First! supporter Leuren Moret, Tuesday’s verdict is all the more surprising given the current wave of patriotism.  

“It’s amazing that they got this following Sept. 11th and all of the support of law enforcement and the broadening of powers of the government,” Moret said. “It’s a miracle that they came to all these unanimous decisions but it just goes to show how powerful the jury system is and how citizens have protected the constitution.”  

The original seven defendants were FBI special agents Frank Doyle, John Reikes, Phil Sena and Stockton Buck and Oakland Police Department Officers Michael Sitterud and Robert Chenault and Lt. Mike Simms.  


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