The judge in the Sonoma rescue trial of animal rights activist Wayne Hsiung has ruled against allowing him to show videos of suffering ducks and chickens to the jury.
Los Angeles, October 6th, 2023 — The attorney and animal rights activist Wayne Hsiung, co-founder of the animal rights group Direct Action Everywhere (DxE), will not be allowed to show the jury footage or even images of animals in distress, dying or dead, during his trial in Sonoma County. Additionally, in an unusual pre-trial hearing on September 27th, future defense witnesses were allowed to be cross-examined by the prosecution before the jury was even selected, leaving some legal observers stunned.
Judge Laura Passaglia, a former prosecutor herself, has made a series of decisions that have shocked and distressed both animal rights supporters and First Amendment advocates.
Gag Orders & Sketching Bans
Not only has she gagged defendant Hsiung from speaking to the press, but she also rejected one veterinarian for the defense as a witnesses, declaring her irrelevant. The judge has also banned cameras, both video and still, from the courtroom. She has even ruled that a courtroom sketch artist is prohibited from drawing any sketches of prosecutors, witnesses, the judge, court staff, jurors and bailiffs during the trial.
UnchainedTV has been bringing viewers live coverage of this groundbreaking trial with an expert panel including former Assistant Manhattan DA Nathan Semmel, TheirTurn’s Donny Moss, OMG! LA host Michelle Celestino, Animal Alliance’s Ellen Dent, Action Hour’s Lindsey Baker and DxE’s Carla Cabral at the courthouse. UnchainedTV’s Jane Velez-Mitchell hosted the panel below:
The Background of the Sonoma County Trial Case
Hsiung is now the only person on trial in this case after charges were dropped or plea deals were accepted regarding all the other co-defendants. He faces trespass and conspiracy to trespass as a lead organizer in the open rescues of 70 chickens and ducks from three different factory farms in Sonoma County, California between 2018 and 2019. Because of these actions, numerous animal rights activists, who claim they had the legal right to rescue suffering animals, were initially arrested for these rescues, but only a handful were prosecuted.
Now, it’s down to one man, who just happens to be one of America’s most talked about animal rights activists, a former constitutional law professor whose activism has been the subject of several New York Times pieces. Supporters claim a prosecutor was heard to say they want to “…cut the head off the snake.” We invite the prosecution on to respond to that claim.
Will Jurors Wonder About Missing Evidence?
On September 1, 2023, prosecutors amended the charges to remove those related to theft and burglary, effectively limiting what evidence the defense could offer at trial. If you are accused of theft, presumably you have the legal right to show the jury what you are accused of stealing, in this case sick and distressed animals. So, that would mean the jury would be able to see the condition of the animals. By reducing the charges to just conspiracy to commit trespass and trespass, the defense has been left with no way to visually show the jurors why the activists did what they did, namely rescue suffering animals.
At the 11th hour, prosecutors also dropped all charges against Cassandra King. And, DxE co-founder Priya Sawhney also elected to accept a plea deal after disagreements with her legal team over defense strategy. So, now, it’s Wayne Hsiung versus the power of the state, which seems hell bent on suppressing a growing movement to alert the world to the conditions of animals inside factory farms.
Getting the Word Out, Despite Judge’s Suppression
Despite the defense not being able to talk to the press, Direct Action Everywhere issued this Instagram video explaining the motive for the open rescues:
“A core part of this case is exposing animal abuse and now that we can’t tell the media about it, it’s more important than ever that you speak up. In 2015, DxE investigators started exposing animal abuse at factory farms in Sonoma County keeping hens in cages so small that they violated Proposition 2. The Sonoma County D.A. refused to act so we took action ourselves. One of those hens, Libby, was so sick that she died that same night. And, yet, 40 of us were arrested, and painted as criminals. I explained to the police that the public has the right to intervene when animals are dying, but they wouldn’t listen.”
“Everything that we’ve seen so far would suggest that this is an almost coordinated effort to shut down this organization and to shut down the person who has led the open rescue movement.”— Donny Moss, founder of TheirTurn.net
Judge Reverses Herself to Ban Cruelty Video
Despite the series of rulings against the defense team, the panelists discussing the case for UnchainedTV initially thought that Judge Laura Passaglia had made a positive decision to allow some footage to be shown to the jury under very restricted conditions. One of the possible defenses for this case is the 597e rule, which is that a person can take action to help animals that have been deprived of food and water for at least 12 hours. It seems that the judge initially said that, although the defense team will not be able to use 597e as a defense on its own, it can use a “mistake of law” defense related to 597e, with the essential argument being that the defendant had reason to believe that animals were being deprived of food and water and that, therefore, the defendant believed rescuers were acting within the law. The panelists thought that the judge would allow for some footage to support such a defense.
But, Something Changed During the Court Lunch Break
After UnchainedTV’s lunch break panel discussion ended, DxE’s Carla Cabral went to back to court for the afternoon hearing. There, she got a shock. This is what she told UnchainedTV:
“The judge just reversed her prior rulings and has now ruled that no video or photo will be allowed to be introduced to the jury. Witnesses will be allowed to talk about what they saw in the videos or pictures, or in a document, but not elaborate. They are only allowed to speak factually about what they saw but not editorialize in any manner. However, the prosecution is going to be allowed to show video. And there may be times, if a door gets opened by the prosecution, that some of that evidence could get in. But, the defense is not allowed to introduce any of it. I just can’t believe this!”
“How can they have a defense of going into the farms without showing the abuse? That destroys their defense. They were going in to rescue animals from abuse. — Lindsay Baker, host of Action Hour
Decisions in the Sonoma County Trial Raise Eyebrows
Several of the panelists expressed surprise, and even disbelief, about some of the decisions taken by prosecutors and the judge so far. Attorney Nathan Semmel said:
“I have been doing this for 20 years and I don’t think I’ve ever seen before all these defense witnesses being paraded into court to offer up what they plan to testify to and give the prosecution, first a sneak-peek at the evidence, and also an opportunity to cross-examine and get prior statements on the record. This is unusual.”
Talking about the fact that Cassandra King’s charges were dropped, Michelle Celestino said:
“The first thing that came to mind was that this is a serious psychological strategic game by the prosecution. Cassie is white, and she’s amiable, she’s well well-spoken, and she’s also one of the leaders of DxE, and for them to drop all her charges, it looks better for the prosecution. Now the defense features a minority in a predominantly white, I would say, jury pool, and that only works for the prosecution.”
TheirTurn.Net’s Donny Moss said this about having only one remaining defendant:
“It feels to me like the county is moving mountains to make an example out of Wayne Hsiung in order to prevent other advocates from coming into the county to follow up on reports of egregious animal cruelty in the many factory farms in Sonoma County.”
We invite any of the farms involved in this case, the judge, the prosecutors, or any representative of the meat industry, to comment at any time.
“If we lose, there’s an appeal, and it’s through that process that we could form the ‘Right to Rescue’.”— Natham Semmel, Attorney
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Jordi Casmitjana is a vegan zoologist and author.