Environmentalists Win Bombing Lawsuit

New York Times/June 12, 2002
By Evelyn Nieves

Oakland, Calif., -- Twelve years after they were accused of carrying a bomb that exploded in their car, two Earth First environmentalists were awarded $4.4 million in a federal civil suit contending that their rights had been violated by the local and federal officers who arrested them.

After 17 days of deliberations, a jury found that six of seven defendants - three F.B.I. agents and three Oakland police officers - had violated the rights of Darryl Cherney, now 46, and Judi Bari, who died of cancer in 1997. One F.B.I. agent was cleared.

Mr. Cherney and Ms. Bari were injured when a homemade, studded pipe bomb exploded in Ms. Bari's Subaru wagon in May 1990 in Oakland as they were on their way to lead a presentation to promote demonstrations that summer against the logging of ancient redwood trees.

Hours later, Ms. Bari, whose pelvis was crushed by the blast, and Mr. Cherney, who was slightly wounded, were arrested by the Oakland police and the F.B.I., which said the bomb had accidentally detonated while the pair were transporting it to use for ecoterrorism.

The charges were dropped six weeks later for lack of evidence, and no one else was ever charged in the blast. But Ms. Bari and Mr. Cherney, who remains an Earth First leader, swore to clear their names.

The two sued investigators for false arrest, violating their civil rights and illegal search, slanderous statements and conspiracy. After many years of legal motions and delays, the trial began on April 9.

The jury was hung on whether Mr. Cherney was falsely arrested, and it cleared the defendants of conspiracy. But the verdict affirmed the plaintiffs' contention that the F.B.I. and Oakland police had violated their civil rights and First Amendment rights by defaming them and casting a pall over their plans to protest against logging, called Redwood Summer.

For Mr. Cherney and his supporters, who had made the case a national issue for the radical environmental movement, the verdicts also supported their claims that authorities had ignored evidence exonerating the two.

"I feel vindicated and relieved," Mr. Cherney said, adding that he plans to include the bombing and the trial in a book he wants to write on the movement to save the Headwaters Forest in Northern California.

"This bombing has dominated our lives," he added. "It has superseded everything. Everywhere I go, people say, `Oh, you were the one whose car was bombed, and you were the one arrested for the bombing.' "

The jury awarded Mr. Cherney and the estate of Ms. Bari $2,399,000 from the F.B.I. and $2,001,000 from the Oakland Police Department.

The jury's verdict came as both agencies are stumbling publicly. The F.B.I. has been harshly criticized for not adequately pursuing clues that preceded the Sept. 11 attacks, and four Oakland police officers are now under investigation for reportedly making false arrests and falsifying evidence.

Oakland investigators testified that they relied almost exclusively on the F.B.I.'s counterterrorism unit in San Francisco for advice on how to handle the case. But the F.B.I. agents denied misleading the investigators into believing that Ms. Bari and Mr. Cherney were violence-prone radicals who were probably guilty of transporting the bomb.

A spokesman for the Department of Justice in Washington said it was "reviewing the verdict."

The Oakland City Attorney's office said it planned to file post-trial motions to reverse the verdicts and will appeal, if necessary. An appeal must be filed within 10 days.

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