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Trial Pits Earth First! Against U.S., Oakland

Court: Suit by activists, one of whom has died, claims 1990 bombing arrest was a frame-up.

May 04, 2002|BETTINA BOXALL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

OAKLAND — More than a decade after Judi Bari accused FBI agents and local police of framing her in a car bombing--and five years after she died of breast cancer--the fiddle-playing, in-your-face Earth First! activist is getting her day in court.

Bari's civil rights lawsuit against federal agents and the Oakland Police Department is in mid-trial here, another in the periodic bouts between Northern California's radical community and the establishment.

At the plaintiffs' table, attorneys are bearded and pony-tailed. One left court with his papers stuffed into a Victoria's Secret shopping bag. Another sniffed a small wildflower during his colleague's aggressive questioning of a retired FBI agent.

The haircuts are shorter and briefcases conventional at the other counsel table, where straight-faced lawyers for the U.S. Department of Justice and the city of Oakland defend their clients' handling of the bombing case.

The federal suit was filed by Bari and fellow Earth First! activist Darryl Cherney a year after a pipe bomb ripped through Bari's cluttered Subaru as the two drove down an Oakland street. Cherney sustained minor injuries. Bari was hospitalized for weeks with pelvic, colon and nerve damage from which she never fully recovered.

Within a day of the May 1990 explosion, while Bari was in intensive care, Oakland police arrested the pair on charges of possessing and transporting an explosive device.

Alameda County prosecutors later said they did not have sufficient evidence to pursue the case, and charges were never filed. No other arrests were ever made.

Cherney and Bari believed someone had tried to kill them. It was a volatile time on the North Coast as environmentalists and the timber industry clashed over the logging of old-growth forests. There were rallies, logging-truck blockades and tree-sits. Bari was at the forefront.

She had received death threats: a drawing of a noose, a photo with the crosshairs of a rifle's telescopic sight imposed on her face. The year before, a logging truck had rammed the car she was riding in.

But, she claimed, authorities didn't care, instead pointing the finger at her and Cherney when the nail-wrapped pipe bomb exploded inches from her. Years later she would say the government had not only accused them of being violent terrorists but also of "stupid, violent terrorists" who blew themselves up.

The note-scribbling jury of nine women and three men in U.S. District Court are in essence being asked to decide now whether authorities had good reason to suspect that Bari and Cherney were carrying a bomb that accidentally blew up, or whether law enforcement used the bombing to go after an annoying bunch of radical environmentalists.

During its slow trip to trial, the federal civil rights lawsuit was considerably narrowed by rulings that barred efforts to portray the Bari-Cherney arrests as part of a much broader, historic FBI campaign to repress radical political dissent. Bari's camp is nonetheless doing its best to make a forum of the trial.

"This lawsuit became the vehicle to talk about these FBI programs that do tremendous damage to the progressive community." said Karen Pickett, a Bari friend and long-time Earth First! organizer. "It is an attempt to hold these people accountable for their actions."

Pickett is among a faithful following of Bari-Cherney supporters and Bay Area lefties who are filling courtroom benches during the seven-week trial before Judge Claudia Wilken.

They are listening to a sometimes tedious, occasionally funny or angry recounting of how authorities conducted the bombing investigation, what they said and what they concluded. Among the key plaintiffs' assertions is that law enforcement lied about the bomb's placement in the car and about whether nails wrapped around the pipe bomb matched those that Bari, a carpenter, had in her car or home.

An expert witness for the plaintiffs' side testified that damage to Bari's 1981 Subaru clearly showed that the bomb was under the driver's seat--suggesting that it had been hidden there by someone other than the occupants.

In an interview, Joseph Sher, Department of Justice senior trial counsel and the lead defense lawyer, said the plaintiffs' court presentation so far "indicates their argument is that because FBI agents in other places were investigating the criminal conduct of people associated with Earth First! ... that demonstrates these defendants were out to get Earth First! That's nonsense."

Concerning the bomb placement, he said that "every trained bomb investigator at the scene ... agreed it was reasonable to conclude these people were carrying the bomb based on what they saw at the scene."

And though authorities were unable to prove their early statement that nails taken from Bari's home matched those in the bomb, Sher said that was because the manufacturing batch was too large to ascertain a sure match.

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