Lessons from John Edwards Case: Why Prosecutors in Rawesome and MN Food Rights Cases Are Desperate to Avoid Juries
The pathetic case of the former senator and vice presidential candidate, John Edwards, is one most of us would just as soon forget about, preferring to file it away as just another sad episode in our political system's steady descent into tawdriness and corruption. That would be a mistake.
The John Edwards case--more particularly, the way it played out legally with a hung jury on most charges and acquittal on one-- actually teaches us at least two important, and related, lessons of immediate relevance in the food rights movement:
1. A jury can distinguish between poor judgment and legal malfeasance. His trial brought out vividly that John Edwards conducted himself shamefully on any number of counts. The fact that he cheated on his dying wife and solicited funds from campaign supporters to cover up his actions are just two examples of his shameful behavior. It might be said that his indefensible personal behavior made him vulnerable politically, and prosecutors jumped at the chance to use him as an example of their supposed willingness to crack down on campaign fundraising fraud.
The prosecution alleged that Edwards illegally used campaign contributions to cover up his bad behavior. The jury didn't buy into it. It acquitted him on one count and, according to media reports, was inclined toward acquittal on the other five counts as well
Now, cut to the case of Sharon Palmer, the supposed bad girl of Rawesome Food Club shame. She's the owner of Healthy Family Farms who has been excoriated in the foodie community for supposedly using outsourced food to supply customers at Rawesome Food Club and at farmers markets. One of Rawesome's founders, Aajonus Vonderplanitz, has accused her of not just using outsourced food, but of using food tainted with high levels of arsenic, mercury, and sodium, and he even put up a web site containing his allegations, called Unhealthy Family Farm.
I have written about the outsourcing allegations, including an interview with Palmer in which she admitted she had provided outsourced eggs to Rawesome Food Club for six months back in 2008, as a result of a sudden huge loss of laying chickens to wild animals. The offices of the Ventura County District Attorney and the Los Angeles County District Attorney both investigated the charges, including Vonderplanitz's allegations that the food was tainted, and didn't consider any of it worthy of criminal charges. There have been plenty of other criminal charges against Palmer--for illegally distributing raw milk, for violation of sanitation rules around egg storage at her farm, and for fraud in connection with raising money from investors to help arrange financing for the farm. It's all enough that she could be looking at more than thirty years in jail.
Now, Mike Adams of Natural Health News has come out with an impressive analysis of the testing procedures supposedly overseen by Vonderplanitz and posted on the Unhealthy Family Farm web site, and concluded it is all seriously deficient on any number of counts. "Scientifically speaking, the single-shot lab test of a ‘mystery chicken,’ whose origin and brand name is not identified on the Doctor's Data lab test, and which was apparently acquired and sent to the lab by a regular consumer who has no ‘chain of custody’ records, renders the entire laboratory test scientifically and logically invalid. The test could have very well been conducted on frozen chicken purchased at Ralph's.”
The fact that Sharon Palmer, like John Edwards, was guilty of poor judgment doesn’t make her guilty of assorted other crimes, much as many in the foodie community would like to think. Moreover, a jury of one’s peers, untainted by the corrupting influence of biased prosecutors and judges, is the best option we have of potentially making the important distinction between what is unethical or immoral and what is illegal.
2. All of which brings me to a second key lesson from the Edwards case: Accused farmers and food club operators are more likely to find salvation from a jury of their peers than from anywhere else within the legal and political system. According to various media reports, Edwards was offered a plea deal, under which he would have pleaded guilty to possibly a single count of misusing campaign contributions, and received a short jail sentence and fine. Very tempting if you are looking at many years in jail upon conviction by a jury.
But Edwards was adamant in refusing the plea deal. He wanted to get in front of a jury, because as an experienced trial lawyer, he knew that a jury would most likely understand the flimsiness of the prosecution’s case. And even though the judge in the case favored the prosecution in nearly all the technical issues that came up during the trial, the jury did indeed wind up supporting Edwards. (Though it was a hung jury on five of six counts, and it is uncertain whether the prosecution will re-try Edwards, a retrial seems unlikely given the failure of the jurors to convict on even a single count.)
It’s the same knowledge about the ability of jurors to relate to the facts of the case that has enabled personal injury lawyers like Bill Marler to reap huge rewards in the food safety arena. He threatens food producers that he will put the serious cases of injury from food-borne illness in front of a jury. The producers know that a jury will in many cases be outraged by the injuries, and will make big financial awards, so the producers settle for hopefully smaller amounts—still many millions.
The ability of jurors to cut through regulator prejudice and political agendas is why prosecutors around the country have gone to great lengths to avoid having their prosecutions in connection with food rights get in front of a jury. In the Rawesome case, they have piled so many charges on Sharon Palmer and James Stewart so as to make even the slight risk of guilty verdicts from juries threatening enough that the defendants will hopefully be anxious to settle for far lesser charges, with little or no jail time--enabling the prosecutors and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to claim victory.
The latest example of the avoid-a-jury-at-all-costs legal gymnastics by prosecutors is taking place in Minnesota. There, the misdemeanor criminal case against Alvin Schlangen, which was supposed to have been tried last month in Minneapolis, has now been re-scheduled to August 27. Not only is that the week before Labor Day, but the week of the Minnesota State Fair—possibly the most popular of its type in the country. From the prosecution’s viewpoint, hopefully not a good week to attract supporters to sit in the audience, and smile back at jurors in support of Schlangen. But maybe food rights activists will surprise the prosecutors and judges seeking to manipulate the proceedings to their advantage. You can be sure the prosecutors will be monitoring the situation closely. If they don’t like what they see, they will try other tactics. Perhaps further delays, to discourage the defendant. Perhaps re-schedule the proceedings for the day before Thanksgiving, or Christmas Eve.
If it was up to the prosecutors, and probably the judges, they’d do away with the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed…”
John Edwards, for all his character flaws, understood the power of the Sixth Amendment.