To Deal, or Not to Deal, That Is Question for Stewart, Others Facing Food Rights Charges; Petition Campaign in Ventura County Case; Two Raw Milk Events
On Tuesday, James Stewart, the jailed founder and principal of Rawesome Food Co., was offered a deal by the Ventura County prosecutor: Plead guilty to 14 of 37 counts of fraud and securities violations, and you'll receive a six-month jail sentence. The two months you've spent in jail will be credited to the jail sentence, so in the end, you'll "only" have to spend four more months in jail. Then, you'll be a free man.
Could be tempting on one level, given that a judge could mete out up to thirty years in jail time if Stewart is convicted by a jury of all the charges filed against him. And that Stewart may well have served close to six months by the time a jury actually hears the case and renders a verdict.
The discussion never got to the next step, as to which charges Stewart would plead guilty to, since he immediately rejected the proposal. He's moving forward toward a trial, which could begin by the end of October.
The charges against Stewart grow out of the acquisition of the Healthy Family Farms site acquired by Sharon Palmer back in 2008, using funds borrowed from at least seven families, at least some of them members of Rawesome, along with mortgage funds secured from a bank by long-time Rawesome member Larry Otting. No deal terms were spelled out at the Tuesday pretrial conference for Palmer, who is charged with 39 counts of fraud and securities violations in the same case.
The prosecutor could come back with improved terms for Stewart before a trial begins, just as prosecutors in the Los Angeles County part of the Rawesome case--charges having to do with raw milk distribution-- improved terms to Sharon Palmer on the day her pretrial hearing was to begin earlier this month. She accepted those terms.
It's safe to say that defendants in politically motivated raw milk and food rights cases upcoming will be facing similar kinds of decisions. Alvin Schlangen was offered a deal just prior to his trial last week whereby he would plead guilty to a single misdemeanor and pay $200 in court costs to avoid a trial. He chose to go on trial, and we all know what happened there.
If and when farmer Dan Brown of Maine "food sovereignty" fame goes on trial, a deal will no doubt be offered to him beforehand. And prior to Vernon Hershberger's scheduled trial in early January, a deal will likely be offered.
The decision as to whether or not to take a deal is a highly personal one. As some pointed out when I suggested Palmer and Bloch got a good deal when they pleaded guilty to single charges and incurred small fines, it's not me who has to bear the consequences of the outcome. It's not me who has to have a criminal record and deal with probation officers in the event of a settlement, and it's not me risking a possible lengthy jail sentence if a jury decides on guilt.
The plea deal has become a standard part of our criminal justice system--an unfortunate part for the increasing number of individuals being dragged into the system on seemingly minor charges or, as in the cases I've described here, in politically-motivated cases. As a result of plea deals, it's been estimated that 95% of all cases never come to trial. The typical approach by prosecutors is to pile on seemingly endless charges, hoping to intimidate defendants from seeking their right to a jury trial. The huge number of charges improves the chance that, if the case does go to trial, jurors will bring back a guilty plea on at least a few charges, and a judge irritated by having to do his or her job will impose a stiff sentence on whatever conviction results.
It seems to me that when you are dealing with politically-motivated cases, and a system that has shown itself to be highly biased against you via the politicians, regulators, and judges, then facing trial offers the only hope of exoneration, and sending a message to arrogant prosecutors that they should spend their time prosecuting real crime. But as I said, it's not my rear end that could wind up in jail if a jury votes to convict.
Certainly the tenor of the offers being made to defendants like Stewart will provide insight into the confidence levels of prosecutors. The Los Angeles County prosecutors obviously were loathe to go in front of a jury with their evidence, given the kind of deals they offered Palmer and Bloch.
In the case of James Stewart, the Ventura County case is so flimsy, so bereft of solid evidence that he was an active participant in the land deal, that it would seem as if a jury would struggle to convict him. A victory would send a strong message, on a par with Schlangen's, that prosecutors shouldn't be messing with our food.
As if to underline the political nature of the Ventura County case against James Stewart and Sharon Palmer, a number of their supporters have begun a petition campaign on their behalf. The petition, headlined, "Free the Farmer & Release the Milkman", accuses the Ventura County District Attorney's office of "misconduct" and "unethical behavior" in bringing the case forward.
The petition and its statement of background information is worth reading through to appreciate the absence of victims in this case. It's only been up a couple days, and already has more than 1,000 signers.
Two forums on raw milk are upcoming.
On Oct. 12, an evening program examining the political assault on raw milk will be held in Milwaukee. The program, "Raw Milk, is it Dangerous?" will begin at 7 p.m. at the Irish Culture & Heritage Center, 2133 W. Wisconsin Avenue, Milwaukee, and it is free. Speakers will include Elizabeth Rich of the Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund, Max Kane, an activist, Gayle Loiselle of Nurished by Nature, and Vernon Hershberger, a farmer facing criminal charges in connection with his food club. Hundreds are expected; doors open at 6:30.
On Oct. 19-20, the fourth International Raw Milk Symposium will be held in Vancouver. Sponsored in part by the Weston A. Price Foundation, the event will be held at the Hotel Delta at Vancouver Airport. Registration is $225 (Canadian).