Justice wasn’t served in animal-rights sentence

By David

Justice is blind, right? In an ideal world punishments always fit the crime, the innocent never suffer, and the guilty never go free. It’s the American way! However, in some cases, justice seems to be not blind, but rather suffering from a severe case of myopia brought on by political exposure. This tends to lead to little problems in the justice system, such as inequity in sentencing and other evils.
However, inequity in general is not the particular ax that I would like to grind at this moment (and believe me, I have one). My special interest is in the recent case of Freeman Wicklund, an animal rights activist recently sentenced to 90 days in jail for a peaceful protest. He is currently on a hunger strike and has not eaten since Wednesday, March 5. He is doing this both to protest what he feels is an unfair sentence and in solidarity with four other activists currently hunger-striking around the country.
In the interest of full disclosure, let me state at the outset that I am militantly pro-animal rights, that I am involved with SOAR and that I know Freeman personally, although not that well. However, while these facts might explain why I would be aware of and interested in Freeman’s case, that does not entirely explain my outrage over his sentencing.
Freeman was arrested in September 1995 for an act of civil disobedience, which he performed in protest of a researcher, Marilyn Carroll, doing animal experimentation at the University. Carroll’s experiments involve testing the effects of drug addiction on primates and rats. To get them addicted to drugs, Carroll starves the animals to 80 percent of their body weight so that they are in a state where they will do anything, such as taking drugs, in order to obtain food.
Freeman and a fellow activist, Katie Fedor, locked themselves to the furniture in the Nils Hasselmo’s office and chanted loudly, refusing to leave. They were arrested and Freeman was charged with trespassing and disorderly conduct, both of which are misdemeanors.
You may not agree with Freeman’s goals. You may think that animal experimentation is a wonderful thing. Many animal-rights activists would question Freeman’s methods (although I would not). However, all of that is immaterial to my point, which is that his punishment was in no way commensurate with his crime.
At Freeman’s sentencing hearing, Judge Joan Lancaster offered him probation and a fine, which he refused. This is a standard tactic for animal-rights activists. Being on probation means that you are not free to protest, and paying a fine constitutes a tacit agreement that what you did was wrong (whether it was illegal or not). The judge offered Freeman work release — 720 hours of work release. This is the equivalent of 90 full days of work. Freeman felt that this was an unfairly large amount of time at which point the judge then sentenced him to 90 days of jail time. Many of you may think that Freeman got what he deserved. After all, he did break the law, right?
I agree that Freeman broke the law and he deserved to get sentenced, at least in the eyes of our current system of justice. However, I have a problem with the length of his sentence.
Ninety days might not seem like much time. After all, it’s just a small portion of a year and many criminals are sentenced to decades of jail time for their offenses. At this point it’s important to think about exactly what it was that Freeman did. Did Freeman hurt anybody? No, he did not. Did he damage someone’s property? Again, no. How about threatening someone? The only people in danger from his protest were he and Fedor, who risked being injured by careless police while trying to remove their locks (this has happened). So in the end it seems that Freeman’s crime was being a major pain for some police officers and some people who were working in the building.
In a scary contrast, it’s true that most first-time offenders for drunk driving get much less than 90 days of jail time. These are people who were irresponsible enough to get into a moving death machine while incapable of controlling their actions. Yet they are allowed back into the community long before such supposedly dangerous menaces as Freeman Wicklund.
Something about this whole situation strikes me as wrong somehow. Perhaps it is the rotten stench of politics that makes my nose twitch. Why would a judge sentence a peaceful political protester who was only following his conscience to more jail time than a real menace?
It also happens to be much more jail time than most people get for the exact same offenses. I can only draw a few conclusions from this. Either the judge was personally offended by Freeman’s actions or there was pressure put upon her to give a tough sentence. Having observed the attitude of Judge Lancaster at the sentencing, I believe that it was the latter. She seemed almost dismayed at the prospect of placing Freeman in jail.
However, no matter her motives, her sentence was vindictive and unfair. If this really bothered her, then why give Freeman the absolute maximum possible sentence for his crimes? There must have been some pressure on her to do so.
I would like to think that there are people out there reading this who are outraged by now. After all, since when is it right to sentence political protesters to more jail time than we would give a drunk driver? This is an outrage not because what Freeman did was right or wrong, but because there is no equity in this sentencing. Somehow the blindfold has fallen from justice’s eyes. The First Amendment protects the government from banning speech because of its political content.
Therefore, shouldn’t we be concerned when someone’s sentencing is governed more by the political content of their actions than by the severity of their offenses?
Something needs to be done. Right now, concerned citizens around the country are calling the judge asking her to change her sentence before Freeman starves to death in jail. She has the power to change this sentence and to give Freeman real justice. If you’re concerned about this injustice and want to do something about it then call SOAR at 624-0422 for more information. If you believe in freedom, both for yourself and others, then you need to speak now.
David Rolsky is a graduate student in music composition.