Animal Rights Activists Convicted in NJ Federal Court

Published April 1, 2006

Six animal rights activists were convicted in federal court in Trenton, New Jersey on March 3 of orchestrating a campaign of aggressive harassment and veiled death threats against persons associated with a pharmaceutical company.

While the jury rejected defense arguments that the activists’ conduct violated no laws, the trial nevertheless reinvigorated support for the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, currently being debated in Congress.

Targeting Children, Families

Jacob Conroy, Darius Fullmer, Lauren Gazzola, Joshua Harper, Kevin Kjonaas, and Andrew Stepanian, ranging in age from 27 to 31, were convicted of coordinating and encouraging an onslaught of harassment and intimidation against employees of Huntingdon Life Sciences (HLS), a pharmaceuticals company with U.S. offices and laboratories primarily in New Jersey.

According to prosecutors, the campaign carried out by the six activists, representing Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (SHAC), was directed not only at HLS employees but also their families, friends, and business associates.

The activists were found to have coordinated a campaign of intimidating late-night phone calls, harassing emails, rocks thrown through windows of homes, vandalism of personal automobiles, vandalism of homes, and veiled death threats. To illustrate the effect of the intimidation campaign, prosecutors on the opening day of the trial showed the image of a young boy who, in response to activists’ stalking of his mother, would run and hide whenever his home doorbell rang.

“He was cowering behind the door because he thought ‘the animal people’ were coming to get him,” executive assistant U.S. Attorney Charles McKenna explained to jurors.

During the first two weeks of the trial, a woman testified she received an email threatening to cut open her 7-year-old son and poison him; a man testified activists overturned his wife’s car and smashed all the windows in his home, showering him with glass; a woman testified masked protestors parked outside her house and videotaped her and her young children, while other protestors verbally abused her through megaphones; and several witnesses testified they felt compelled to change phone numbers, constantly check to see if they were being followed while walking or driving, move to new homes, keep their children from playing outside, and purchase guns for self-defense.

Terrorists’ Goals Achieved

The harassment campaign lasted for five years and in many instances focused on people with such tenuous connections to Huntingdon as people who traded Huntingdon stock, worked for the firm’s insurers, or worked for companies providing loans to Huntingdon.

From the terrorists’ point of view, the harassment and intimidation achieved success. According to a February 20 Associated Press story, a lawyer for Huntingdon said many companies stopped doing business with the firm after their own employees became targets of the terrorists.

Approval or Coordination?

Defense attorneys argued the applicable federal statute, the Animal Enterprises Protection Act of 1992, applies only to animal enterprises themselves, and not to other persons or entities that merely have a connection to the targeted enterprise. Moreover, they argued, the defendants themselves did not directly participate in any specific incident of harassment, but merely offered encouragement and approval of such activity.

An employee of the Marsh insurance company, which insured Huntingdon until dropping the company after being targeted by particularly disturbing harassment, countered that SHAC posted her name, the names of her children, her home phone number, the name of her children’s school, and the name of her son’s teacher on the SHAC Web site, where acts of violence and intimidation against people associated with the firm were applauded.

Applauding and trumpeting the acts of terror and intimidation on a SHAC Web site, defense lawyers argued, is a permissible exercise of free speech that does not cross the line of impermissible incitement. The trial jury, however, disagreed.

All six were convicted of animal enterprise terrorism, and several also were convicted of multiple counts of conspiring and committing interstate stalking and of telephone harassment. They face substantial fines and prison terms of up to 14 years when sentenced in June.

James M. Taylor ([email protected]) is managing editor of Environment & Climate News.