Published Tuesday, August 25, 1998, in the San Jose Mercury News
Pepper spray case mulled
Deliberations go on in trial of officers
SAN FRANCISCO (AP) -- After a two-week trial featuring tearful activists in
long hair and sandals, a federal jury began deciding Monday whether it's
unreasonable for police to douse pepper spray in the eyes of demonstrators.
"Strike a blow for liberty that will ring across this nation," their
lawyer, Macon Cowles, urged jurors in closing arguments on Friday.
Jurors adjourned Monday after meeting about five hours. Deliberations were
expected to resume at 8:30 a.m. today.
Cowles accused Humboldt County officers of imposing "punishment for
thought" and subjecting protesters to "the sense that your humanity is
being ripped from you" by swabbing pepper spray directly onto their eyes to
break up their logging protests.
But county attorney Nancy Delaney reminded jurors that despite the screams
heard on police videotapes that were broadcast nationally, none of the
protesters required medical attention.
The nine environmentalists sipped water out of recycled drinking glasses
between turns on the witness stand. The defense, wearing the usual suits
and ties, opted for styrofoam cups.
The plaintiffs described the fear and pain suffered last year when police
officers and sheriff's deputies held their hair and heads, forced open
their eyes and swiped them with cotton swabs.
"I felt like it wasn't going to stop, that they were going to keep hurting
us," testified Maya Portugal, who was 15 when she and her comrades locked
themselves around a tree stump in the office of Rep. Frank Riggs.
But law enforcement officers, increasingly frustrated by the
environmentalists' tactics, said pepper spray is safer than cutting them
out of the thick, metal sleeves they lock themselves into to delay logging
The protesters have asked for unspecified damages. U.S. District Judge
Vaughn Walker told the jury of six women and two men that in deciding
whether the force was excessive they should measure it against "the force
that a reasonable and prudent law enforcement officer would use under the
The case drew attention after video footage of protests in Riggs' office
and at two Pacific Lumber Co. sites was shown on national television.
Police in the area routinely record their confrontations with
In each incident, protesters used "black bears," two elbow-length,
quarter-inch-thick pieces of pipe welded together at a 90-degree angle, to
lock themselves to each other and equipment. They insert their arms into
the pipes and lock their hands to a pin inside.
"Lock-down devices are used to delay and frustrate the efforts of law
enforcement officers to remove and take into custody activists who are
intentionally violating the law," the county's lawyers said.
But the plaintiffs' attorneys said protesters simply tried "to harmlessly
delay logging operations."
"It's not trying to make anyone's day harder," said Portugal, one of four
protesters who took over the Eureka office of Riggs, a Republican and an
outspoken logging advocate whose district includes the Headwaters Forest in
Police officers and deputies testified that they have been forced to spend
an enormous amount of time and energy removing demonstrators from "black
bears" and other increasingly sophisticated devices.
Sheriff Dennis Lewis, who said he approved the direct applications of
pepper spray to protect both police and protesters, painted a picture of a
78-member force overwhelmed by the demonstrations.
Several deputies, who have had to use heavy-duty electric grinders to cut
through the "black bears" in the past, testified that a major mishap was
inevitable unless they use more benign methods.
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