Opponents of factory farms and animal cruelty celebrated Saturday night when jurors acquitted two activists who were each facing up to five-and-a-half years in prison on felony burglary and theft charges stemming from the 2017 removal of a pair of sick piglets from a Smithfield Foods factory farm in Utah.
The not-guilty verdict—a landmark decision establishing the legal "right to rescue" distressed animals in need of care—is "the culmination of a more than five-year pursuit that multiple agencies, including the FBI and the Utah attorney general's office," The Intercept's Marina Bolotnikova reported.
As Bolotnikova noted, the case "began after the activists published undercover footage revealing gruesome conditions at Smithfield, the nation's largest pork producer," in violation of Utah's 2012 ag-gag law criminalizing the collection of evidence of animal abuse and other illegal activities on factory farms.
Wayne Hsiung and Paul Picklesimer, members of the animal rights group Direct Action Everywhere (DxE), rescued two dangerously underweight piglets, whom they named Lily and Lizzie, from Circle Four Farms in Beaver County in March 2017. The men took the piglets to receive emergency veterinary care and then transported them to an animal sanctuary in Colorado.
Cheers erupted in the courtroom on Saturday when Judge Jeffrey Wilcox announced the jury's unanimous decision to acquit both defendants following more than seven hours of deliberation. The trial had to be moved from Beaver County to neighboring Washington County after activists endured threats of violence and intimidation from local authorities, prompting a civil rights lawsuit.
"They just let a guy who walked into a factory farm and took two piglets out without the consent of Smithfield walk out of the courtroom free," Hsiung, who co-founded DxE in 2013, told reporters outside the courthouse in St. George, Utah. "If it can happen in southern Utah, it can happen anywhere."
During his closing remarks to jurors, Hsiung, a former Northwestern Law visiting professor who represented himself at trial, said: "I don't actually want you to acquit us on a legal technicality. I want you to acquit us as a matter of conscience. There's a big difference between stealing and rescue."
If you help establish the "right to rescue," Hsiung told the jury, "companies will be a little more compassionate to creatures under their stewardship. Governments will be a little more open to animal cruelty complaints. And maybe just maybe, a baby pig like Lily won't have to starve to death on the floor of a factory farm."
"We all have a duty to be kind," said Hsiung. "And your decision today, if you make a good one, will make the world a little bit of a kinder place, even for a baby pig of a factory farm."
As DxE pointed out in a statement:
A most unlikely character witness, Rick Pitman, testified in support of the defendants Friday. Pitman is the owner of Norbest, a turkey farming company in Utah, which Hsiung and Picklesimer previously investigated and were charged for, before striking up a friendship and annual Thanksgiving turkey rescue tradition.
During cross-examination, Assistant Utah Attorney General Janise Macanas asked Pitman if Hsiung's actions had caused him financial harm. Pitman replied, "There's a difference between stealing a turkey and rescuing a turkey who is suffering."
The case had been criticized by legal scholars as unconstitutional and politically motivated, given Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes' possible financial ties to Smithfield.
"State and federal authorities have consistently shielded factory farms from transparency and accountability," said Matthew Strugar, an attorney who has been involved in every successful effort to overturn "ag-gag" statutes in the United States. "In nearly two decades of legal work, this case is one of the most egregious I've seen, in terms of denying defendants' constitutional right to a rigorous defense."
Although Hsiung and Picklesimer "documented dead and dying piglets in piles of feces and blood and claim the two piglets they removed were injured, sick, and starving," DxE noted, Wilcox ruled in February that "video of the rescue—and any evidence of the condition of the animals—is barred because it might arouse 'horror' in the jury."
As Bolotnikova explained Saturday, citing previous reporting by The Intercept, the FBI in August 2017 "chased the piglets across state lines and raided the sanctuary where they were living, bringing with them veterinarians who sliced off a piece of Lizzie's ear to perform a DNA test and confirm that she was the property of Smithfield Foods. (The animals were not removed from the sanctuary, and still live there to this day.)"
"Prosecutors alleged that the baby pigs, who were barely a week old when the activists removed them, were worth $42.20 each, or $84.40 in total, to Smithfield," Bolotnikova reported. "The U.S.-based pork producer is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Hong Kong-based pork company WH Group, which reported $24 billion of revenue in 2019."
Hadar Aviram, a professor at UC Hastings Law who testified in favor of the activists, told The Intercept that "Smithfield has an enormous amount of financial interests that are wrapped up in this."
"They have an enormous amount to lose if this trial becomes public, and they cannot afford, or maybe they think they cannot afford, to give an inch to these people," said Aviram.
The pig rescue occurred during a DxE investigation to uncover whether Smithfield had followed through on its pledge to stop using two-foot by seven-foot gestation crates that make it impossible for pregnant pigs to turn around.
Hsiung, Picklesimer, and three others who pleaded out of the case discovered rows of pregnant pigs confined to such cages despite the company's promise to swear off of them. Evidence from the probe has been used in a lawsuit against Smithfield for misleading consumers, and it sparked nationwide protests against Costco, one of Smithfield's major buyers.
The animal rights activists also found "a facility packed with farrowing crates—similar to gestation crates, but with just enough additional room to fit nursing piglets—where female pigs are moved when they're ready to give birth," The Intercept noted. "The group found dead and rotting piglets inside the facility, as well as visibly ill and injured ones like Lily and Lizzie."
"A key part of the defense's case was that the piglets were on the verge of death when Hsiung and Picklesimer took them, and Smithfield routinely throws sick or dead animals away," the news outlet noted. "Had the animals remained in the company's possession, the defense argued, they would have been worthless."
By setting a "right to rescue" precedent, the activists' major victory against a multi-billion dollar industry could have far-reaching implications.
"This is huge. On many levels," Bolotnikova tweeted. "And it shows a hell of a lot about how out-of-touch red-state prosecutors and politicians are from the people they represent."
The U.S. Supreme Court, she added, will soon hear arguments over California's ban on gestation crates, which "were on trial in this case even though the judge didn't want them to be."