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New York Times
March 3, 2011
By KIRK JOHNSON
Published: March 3, 2011
SALT LAKE CITY — A Utah man who infiltrated a sale of federal energy leases in December 2008 to protest United States policies about climate change was found guilty by a jury on Thursday of disrupting a government auction and faces up to 10 years in prison.
The defendant, Tim DeChristopher, 29, became a folk hero and a martyr in some corners of the environmentalist movement for taking action against the leases, which provoked protests and demonstrations in the closing days of the administration of President George W. Bush because of the perceived risk to sensitive lands in southern Utah.
In his four-day trial here in Federal District Court, his lawyers argued that Mr. DeChristopher was passionate but impulsive, and had no thought-out “plan” or “scheme” — words central to the language of the charges — to ruin the auction by buying nearly $1.8 million worth of oil and gas leases with no intent to pay.
“He really didn’t know what he was doing,” one of his lawyers, Ronald J. Yengich, told the jury in closing arguments on Thursday morning.
But the jury of eight men and four women, after deliberating for about four and a half hours, apparently agreed with the assistant United States attorney, John W. Huber, who said in his closing argument that the “rule of law” was a boundary of civil society that passion and zeal for a cause could not justify crossing.
“He chose a path of illegality and criminal conduct,” Mr. Huber told the panel.
Mr. DeChristopher, who in 2008 was an undergraduate economics student at the University of Utah here in Salt Lake City, freely admitted putting in bids, and then actually winning more than a dozen oil and gas leases before being pulled out of the room by suspicious auction officials.
The debate within the trial, which had been repeatedly delayed, was over the question of Mr. DeChristopher’s intent, and, out of the jury’s presence, his motive. Judge Dee Benson strictly limited how much the defense could say about federal energy policies and climate change, which Mr. DeChristopher has said in numerous interviews were his primary motivations in going to the auction.
Mr. DeChristopher repeatedly said his specific hope was that by delaying the auction, the leases could be reconsidered by the Obama administration, which was then just about to take office.
But the jury, beyond a few cryptic references during the trial, was told only that Mr. DeChristopher had strong environmental beliefs.
In an interview last week, Mr. DeChristopher predicted a short trial and conviction because of the limits put on what he could say in his defense. He said prosecutors offered a reduced sentence last summer in exchange for pleading guilty to one of the two counts in the indictment.
“I wasn’t interested,” he said.
He added: “Their goal is to make an example out of me. It intimidates others into following the rules.”
Mr. DeChristopher faces up to five years on each of the two counts — disrupting a federal auction and making false statements on federal forms to enter the auction — and up to $750,000 in total fines. Sentencing was set for June 23.