I've written about Tim DeChristopher a couple times (click here and here). DeChristopher disrupted an illegal federal land oil lease auction sale set up by the Bush Administration as Bush was on his way out the door. For messing up the illegal auction, DeChristopher was charged with a couple different crimes, after a sketchy (at best) trial he was convicted and was then sentenced to two years in a federal prison. (Read more about DeChristopher here and here or Google him.)
In August, from his jail cell he wrote a letter to a writer and producer at Grist.org. If you read nothing else today, please read Tim DeChristopher's letter. Here's an excerpt and a link to his letter.
If I had ever doubted the power of words, Judge Benson made their importance all too clear at my sentencing last month. When he sentenced me to two years in prison plus three years probation, he admitted my offense "wasn't too bad." The problem, Judge Benson insisted, was my "continuing trail of statements" and my lack of regret. Apparently, all he really wanted was an apology, and for that, two years in prison could have been avoided. In fact, Judge Benson said that had it not been for the political statements I made in public, I would have avoided prosecution entirely. As is generally the case with civil disobedience, it was extremely important to the government that I come before the majesty of the court with my head bowed and express regret. So important, in fact, that an apology with proper genuflection is currently fair trade for a couple years in prison. Perhaps that's why most activist cases end in a plea bargain.
Since that seems like such a good deal, some people are asking why I wasn't willing to shut my mouth and take it. But perhaps we should be asking why the government is willing to make such a deal. The most recent plea bargain they offered me was for as little as 30 days in jail. (I'm writing this on my 28th day.) So if they wanted to lock me up for two years, why would they let me walk for an apology and keeping my mouth shut for a while? On the other hand, if they wanted to sweep this under the rug, why would they cause such a stir by locking me up? Why do my words make that much of a difference?
With all criminal cases, of which 85 percent end in a plea bargain, the government has a strong incentive to avoid a trial: In addition to cutting the expense of a trial, a plea bargain helps concentrate power in the hands of government officials.
Again, if you read nothing else this week, please read DeChristopher's letter. I don't necessarily agree with everything he has written and/or said, but he makes some very interesting and sometimes compelling points.
I actually had a chance to talk to DeChristopher -- very briefly -- at a conference last summer, before his sentencing, and told him if he were my client and I his lawyer, I'd be telling him to stop talking about his case. He let me and a room-full of people know I wasn't the first person to tell him that. (There's a video of our brief interaction out there somewhere; not sure if I've ever posted a link. If not, if anybody's interested in watching it let me know and I'll see if I can find it.)