By Mark Cromer
Los Angeles County prosecutors today offered the 'Arcadia Four' tree-sitters — who protested the county's destruction of 249 old-growth oaks north of L.A. — a plea deal including fines that would range up to $3,000 with added fees and surcharges.
The four weren't interested, and defense attorney Colleen Flynn's comment crackled with a clear-eyed, high-voltage warning to District Attorney Steve Cooley's office: “We're sending a message: We're going to litigate this case to the hilt.”
A trial could badly embarrass Los Angeles County, Sheriff Lee Baca, and county officials, and here's why:
Prosecutors reportedly wanted jail time for two tree-sitters and payment from all four for “restitution” approaching $30,000 — for alleged costs incurred when Sheriff's deputies cordoned off the oak grove and public streets as a “crime scene,” then the county's Department of Public Works brought in equipment to pluck the enviros from the trees.
Sharp questions are being raised about whether Los Angeles County broke far bigger laws in its strange efforts that prevented journalists from eyewitness coverage of the mass bulldozing of the trees — images that could have easily gone global.
As journalists tried to get into the oak grove to photograph and videotape the destruction, armed Sheriff's deputies insisted the area was a “crime scene” — and prevented journos from documenting the crews as they ripped the 249 trees from the ground.
In a video, journalist Jerry Day ably argues with a Sheriff's deputy that the cops are illegally closing a public street and the grove itself to prevent journalists from covering a legitimate news story of great interest to the public. See video here.
First Amendment lawyers say the shutout of journalists was a clear violation of the constitution. See Mark Cromer's breaking Weekly story here.
Since then, sheriff's sources have attempted to argue that they never gave the on-site deputies permission to keep reporters out by calling it a crime scene.
In front of Judge Stephanie M. Bowick at the county courthouse in Alhambra today, the four tree-sitters entered pleas of “not guilty” to three misdemeanor counts.
The four made it clear they were more inclined to start preparing for jury selection than be punished beyond the jail time they have already served.
“I don't mind pushing this to trial if we have to,” said environmentalist John Quigley. “They're still asking too much.”
The plea offers from Deputy District Attorney Patricia Wilkinson was based on a single guilty plea to trespassing.
The four were being asked to perform 10 to 20 days of community service and $500 to $1,000 in fines and restitution. (But the actual fines would have almost tripled under the terms of the plea.)
A pre-trial hearing has been scheduled for April 22.
Flynn, who is representing all four of the protesters, affirmed her clients were looking for total vindication.
“There's no deal. At this point it's all or nothing,” she said. “I don't think any punishment is warranted.”
Prosecutor Wilkinson demurred from comment beyond saying, “Okay, that's their prerogative.”
Quigley was arrested along with Andrea Bowers, Travis Jochimsen and Julia Posin in January after they climbed into the canopy of an old-growth woodlands in the Arcadia Highlands to delay and draw attention to its planned destruction by the county's Public Work's Department.
The grove was wiped out to make way for a massive sediment dump.
Sheriff's deputies booked the four into the sheriff's Temple City station on charges of trespassing and resisting arrest and held them there overnight and into the next day — until the destruction of the oaks and sycamores was complete and the barred media had gone home.
Quigley and Jochimsen, who have both been involved in previous protests to save old growth trees in Southern California, including the tree-in to save the 400-year-old oak 'Old Glory', were initially looking at jail time because of their previous tree-sitting records.
Quigley and Jochimsen faced twice as much community service and fines as Posin and Bowers.
But the four presented a united front and seem to sense that the public–and a jury–will consider their jail time served enough already for a peaceful effort to save century-old trees.
The four cut a striking appearance in front of Judge Bowick, with the attractive and stylish pair of Posin and Bowers standing shoulder to shoulder with the professorial Quigley and the dreadlocked Jochimsen, who in his overalls and boots looked like he might have just come off a boat working the Bering Sea.
Their easy-going camaraderie and sense of holding the moral high ground was evident in the hallway outside the courtroom as well, as they chatted with reporters and well-wishers.
Mark Cromer can be reached at Mrcromer@aol.com