Citing procedural errors by the judge, a federal appeals panel has thrown out the conviction of a militant environmentalist accused of helping firebomb a plant researcher's office at the University of Washington in 2001.
A three-member panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously sent the case of Briana Waters back to the U.S. District Court in Tacoma for a new trial, the Seattle Times reports.
Waters, a violin teacher and an activist with the Earth Liberation Front, was convicted in March 2008 of arson for the fire inside the office of professor Toby Bradshaw, whom the group mistakenly believed was helping to genetically engineer poplar trees that would contaminate forests. U.S. District Court Judge Franklin Burgess sentenced her to six years in federal prison and ordered her to pay $6 million in restitution.
In their ruling, the judges said Burgess made a "number of errors," including allowing the jury to review "highly prejudicial" articles that Waters purportedly gave to another defendant, who pleaded guilty and testified against Waters in exchange for leniency. The appeals court found that the articles were inflammatory and that prosecutors' effort to tie them to Waters was weak.
"While the evidence against Waters may have been sufficient to sustain her conviction, our review of the record does not leave us convinced that her conviction was fairly obtained," the judges wrote.
Two ELF members are serving prison terms for cooperating with the government against Waters, who says she was asleep at her home in Olympia, Wash., at the time of the arson. A fourth ELF member indicted in absentia for the firebombing is in jail on unrelated charges in China, and a fifth activist linked to the arson committed suicide in an Arizona jail.
After Waters' conviction, Salon looked at whether she was a terrorist, writing that U.S. attorneys "exploited post-9/11 counterterrorism policies to pursue and prosecute an environmental activist."
Other ELF members were indicted on charges of domestic terrorism for fires that destroyed luxury housing developments and SUV dealerships in the Rocky Mountains and Pacific Northwest over the past dozen years.
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