UPDATED: Minnesota EWOKs jailed in Iowa


UPDATED 11/20/09: Scott DeMuth has been indicted on conspiracy and terrorism charges under the federal Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act. The charges stem from a 2004 Animal Liberation Front raid on the University of Iowa, in which 400+ mice were freed from a research laboratory and the lab was trashed. Will Potter gives some background and links at his GreenIsTheNewRed blog. For additional TC Daily Planet coverage, see Minneapolis EWOKs ordered to Iowa grand jury

According to Scott DeMuth’s lawyer, Barbara Ann Nimis,  Scott DeMuth and Carrie Feldman were taken into custody for contempt of court after refusing to answer grand jury questions. They had been given total use immunity, which means they could not face criminal charges based on the answers they gave, with the exception of charges for perjury if they lied under oath.  Now they both could be held in jail for up to 11 months which is the duration of this current grand jury.

Feldman and DeMuth were founding members of Earth Warriors are OK! (EWOK), an activist group that offers support to animal rights and environmental activists facing criminal charges and prison sentences.  They met in 2005, when they were both in high school, and dated for three years, forming EWOK (which was then called Twin Cities Eco-Prisoner Support Committee) in December of 2006.

DeMuth said in an interview last week that he was concerned about protecting the activists that he has interviewed in his research at the University of Minnesota sociology department, where he is a graduate student.  Nimis said that the judge would not allow DeMuth to use his academic and professional confidentiality agreements as a valid reason not to testify.  Nimis said in an email that the project that DeMuth has been working on at the university has been done according to Institutional Review Board (IRB) standards and guidelines.

DeMuth’s adviser at the U, David Pellow, said that the sociology department is “mobilizing to support him and to make sure that his standing in the program is maintained.”  Pellow said that DeMuth may be allowed to continue his studies in jail, and that the chair of the department and the dean of students have been very supportive.

Pellow said that for a court to decide that the law has a higher power than the confidentiality of a university is very rare.  According to the American Sociological code of ethics, “We are bound to maintain confidentiality to those who trust us with their information.  If we give up that information we violate that trust.”  There is an enormous amount at stake, Pellow said, because the research done by academics ultimately affects public policy.  “This is way beyond Scott DeMuth,” he said.

What do you think?

Both grand juries and confidentiality rules have been controversial over the years.

Grand Juries The American Bar Association has a lengthy FAQ about grand juries, that includes the following explanation:

“The original purpose of the grand jury was to act as a buffer between the king (and his prosecutors) and the citizens. Critics argue that this safeguarding role has been erased, and the grand jury simply acts as a rubber stamp for the prosecutor….

“In the federal system, the courts have ruled that the grand jury has extraordinary investigative powers that have been developed over the years since the 1950s. This wide, sweeping, almost unrestricted power is the cause of much of the criticism. The power is virtually in complete control of the prosecutor, and is pretty much left to his or her good faith….

“A prosecutor can obtain a subpoena to compel anyone to testify before a grand jury, without showing probable cause and, in most jurisdictions, without even showing that the person subpoenaed is likely to have relevant information. In the federal system the prosecutor is not required to demonstrate any relevance. The person subpoenaed to testify then is compelled to answer questions unless he or she can claim a specific privilege, such as the marital privilege, lawyer/client privilege, or the privilege against self-incrimination. “

Privileges The Fifth Amendment guarantees that a person cannot be compelled to incriminate himself (or herself.) The way around that provision in the grand jury setting is a grant of immunity – if the person’s testimony cannot be used against that person, then there is no self-incrimination.

Some other, more limited, privileges also exist. One spouse can usually not be compelled to testify against the other – marital privilege. Similar privileges preserve confidentiality of communications between lawyers and clients, doctors and patients, clergy and congregant, accountant and client, psychotherapist and client – though these privileges are not given equal weight or the same definition in different jurisdictions. A few states recognize a parent-child privilege.

Journalists assert a privilege based on the First Amendment, which many courts refuse to acknowledge. Many journalists have gone to jail rather than reveal their sources. That probably comes closest to the academic research privilege that DeMuth appears to be asserting.

Tell us what you think about grand juries in general, or about whether academic researchers should be allowed to keep their sources confidential. Enter a comment to this article or email editor@tcdailyplanet.net