Utah animal rights activist Jordan Halliday has begun a 10-month prison sentence for refusing to testify before a federal grand jury about his political beliefs and political associations. It is believed to be the first time in two decades, and only the third time in U.S. history, that someone has been imprisoned for criminal contempt of court after already serving prison time for civil contempt–all because of his principled stand against what activists call a political witch hunt.
The Utah grand jury was convened in 2009 to investigate the release of mink from Utah fur farms by the Animal Liberation Front. Halliday refused to cooperate because grand juries have historically been used against social movements (as they are now being used againstantiwar activists in the Midwest) in fishing expeditions.
When you walk into a grand jury, you check your rights at the door. You have to answer questions about your politics and your friends. You don’t have the right to remain silent. If you refuse to cooperate and “name names,” you can be sent to jail. That’s what happened to Halliday.
But the story of how and why he was targeted gets even more surprising.
According to a government memo, “there is evidence that the defendant [Halliday] notified news sources of the McMullin mink farm attack on the day of the attack, and even before police officers knew of the significance of the crime.” This would seem like a good reason to question him.
However, it’s a lie.
FBI file shows emails from Fur Commission.
On August 20, 2009, someone submitted an anonymous message to KUTV.com about the fur farm raid. The only details provided on the contact form were a first name of “Jordan” and an email “firstname.lastname@example.org.” The message said the Animal Liberation Front released 300 mink from McMullin mink farm and that they “look a lot happier.”
KUTV forwarded the message to Lindsey McMullin, the farm owner. McMullin forwarded the email to Teresa Platt of Fur Commission USA, an industry group. Platt forwarded the email to the FBI. [Here is a section of the FBI file with the emails.]
This is the basis for the FBI’s obsession with Halliday: an anonymous email attributed to “Jordan” that they received from a corporate front group, and the fact that Jordan Halliday is the only animal rights “Jordan” they could find (the other Jordans they spoke with were not activists, prosecutors said).
Refusal to Cooperate
Halliday maintains he has no knowledge of these crimes, and points out that anyone claiming responsibility for a crime would not use their real name (plus email@example.com is not even a valid address). Instead, he argues that he has been targeted because of his protesting and writing, and that this is a broader attack on the animal rights and environmental movements.
Halliday’s attorney said in a memorandum:
… Jordan has resisted questioning involving his membership status and/or leadership position in various organizations of political and social nature involved in advocating for animal protections. He has been questioned about whether he organized a rally in front of the federal courthouse, and if he knows who did organize such rally, or if it were an organization to which he belongs that planned the rally. He has been asked about his family members, and whether one is married to an animal rights activist…[emphasis added]
Halliday answered either “no comment” or invoked the Fifth Amendment to all questions asked of him during his grand jury appearances. He answered no questions. His refusal to cooperate with the grand jury resulted in him spending 104 days in jail for civil contempt of court. Before being released, he was informed that the government had indicted him again on the same case, this time on criminal contempt charges.
Upon learning that prosecutors sought a 2 year prison sentence, Halliday pleaded guilty to refusing to answer questions at a federal grand jury. He was sentenced to 10 months in prison. To put this in perspective, William James Viehl and Alex Jason Hall were convicted of two counts of “animal enterprise terrorism” under the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act for the Matthews mink farm raid, and sentenced to 21 and 24 months.
Why was Halliday treated so harshly?
One reason is that his “refusal to testify over a long period and his statements about ‘resisting’ the grand jury make his conduct more serious than simply failing to appear as a material witness.”
An example of this “disdainful view of grand juries” is a March 4, 2009 text message sent by Halliday after appearing before the grand jury. According to the government’s sentencing memo, he wrote:
Well, after my dave chapelle … I plead the 5th routine today. I was making some fo [sic] the gj laugh. I was sayin’ like “1-2- 3-4-5th!”. And they asked to see and they asked to see and they asked her to grant me more time as well, because they needed more time. The prosecutor was pissed as fuck.
Prosecutors note that “Dave Chappelle is a popular comedian who performs a comic routine that Halliday claims in the text message to have been mimicking before the grand jury. (Submission Exhibit No. 6.) In context, the video clip illustrates Halliday’s intention to mock the grand jury process…”
Prosecutors also say there were protestors outside the courthouse, and that Halliday said on websites and in the press that he had no intention of cooperating with a grand jury witch hunt. His refusal to cower in fear, his refusal to acquiesce to the government’s bullying, and his willingness to mock those the government were spun by the government as evidence of the need for a higher sentence.
It’s telling that prosecutors bluntly describe this lack of fear as a threat to the entire grand jury system. “In some sense, the defendant’s contempt has brought a certain stardom within the counterculture animal rights extremist movement,” the sentencing memo says. He has tweeted, blogged, and interviewed about his experiences. He has supporters who have opened Facebook and Tumblr accounts, and protested outside the courthouse.
It is imperative, prosecutors said, that the “sentence defendant receives must not only deter his future criminal conduct, but also send the appropriate message to ensure that, as an unintended consequence of a lenient sentence, the defendant’s supporters are not emboldened to follow the defendant’s contemptuous ways.”
The FBI, the fur industry, and prosecutors are openly trying to send a message.
But what message are you hearing?
By Will Potter