2 items prompted by the Wivenhoe victory
Court victories for GM crop rebels put CPS on the spot
Thursday June 28
The crown prosecution service promised last night to continue with criminal proceedings against protesters who damage genetically modified crops, despite losing a major case for the third time in a year. Prosecutors said they would treat all cases of alleged damage to GM fields on their merit and bring charges if they felt that such action was in the public interest.
The announcement came as anti-GM supporters celebrated after a district judge acquitted on a legal technicality 11 people charged with criminal damage of a GM maize crop in Essex last year.
The six women and five men from the Colchester area had denied causing criminal damage to the crop at Sunnymead Farm, Wivenhoe, Essex, on July 20 last year. Half of a four-hectare field had been planted with conventional maize and the rest with GM forage maize, which was part of a trial by the seed company Aventis.
In his delayed ruling yesterday, Kevin Gray, sitting at Harwich magistrates court, said the defendants had initially been charged with destroying GM maize and that the crown had later accepted evidence that none of the actual crop had been destroyed. But Mr Gray said that an amended charge had never been put to the defendants, even though the crown had been told in February by an expert that they had damaged non-GM maize. A case summary by the prosecution at the start of the trial said that non-GM maize had been damaged.
All 11 denied the charge, saying that they had damaged the crop to protect the possible "contamination" of the environment by GM pollen. They claimed the support of the local community, where a poll suggested 88% of people were opposed to the GM trial.
Mr Gray said: "The crown has not cited any evidence in support of the allegation that these defendants have damaged or destroyed property belonging to Aventis CropScience, which by definition was the GM maize, and that the charge stands to be dismissed in all cases."
Lord Melchett, the former head of Greenpeace, was one of 28 people cleared of criminal damage at Norwich crown court last September. Earlier this month charges of aggravated trespass were dropped against seven protesters who cut down and trampled GM crops near Sherborne in Dorset.
Even when people have been convicted of destroying GM crops, the legal system has shown sympathy. Last December a judge told five people found guilty of pulling up and bagging [pounds] 2,000 of oilseed rape at a research farm in Hutton Magna, Co Durham, that he accepted they honestly believed they had a "positive purpose". They were given conditional discharges and were not ordered to pay compensation to Aventis, which was carrying out the trial, or to the farmer.
The crown prosecution service and corporations are increasingly concerned that environmental campaigners who challenge the law by non-violent action are being acquitted by juries and magistrates. In the past decade prosecutions of protesters against new roads and nuclear, chemical and arms trade companies have collapsed after defendants argued that they had acted according to their consciences and that they were trying to prevent a greater crime.
"The public is increasingly speaking through the courts and the crown prosecution service and the powers that be prosecute these cases at their peril. Equally, corporations want to keep well clear of juries," said Martin Day, a partner with Leigh Day solicitors which specialises in environmental cases.
"We're looking at a society which is far more in tune with the environment than in the past. Politicians and companies have not understood that most people now understand the issues. There's a feeling that government and the authorities have not been paying sufficient heed, and that the courts are righting the balance."
The increasing number of acquittals has led to more protesters acting "openly and accountably", actively seeking court cases rather than operating covertly. A court allows them a stage to state complex scientific and ethical matters.
But it has also led to a situation where the crown is now often reluctant to prosecute, especially in the high court. It is not uncommon for protesters to play up the amount of damage they have done in order to have their cases heard by juries, while companies have been keen to play down the damage done to their products in order for their cases to be heard in magistrates courts away from what are widely seen as "fickle" juries. The latest case suggests that protesters will continue to appeal to the law.
The defendants acquitted yesterday were Andrew Abbott, 32, of Colchester; Kenneth Butcher, 49, of Wivenhoe; Edith Butcher, 53, of Wivenhoe; Andrew Curtis, 24, of Colchester; David Isaacson, 21, of Colchester; Julie Moore, 43, of Earls Colne; Tracey Osben, 38, of St Osyth; Lynn Priest, 50, of Thorpe-le-Soken; Sarah Priest, 26, of St Osyth; Dean Scott, 31, of West Mersea; and Nicola Shillaker, 42, of Colchester.
CPS VOWS TO KEEP PROSECUTING OVER GM CROP DAMAGE
June 27, 2001
Tania Cocksedge and Brian Farmer
The UK Crown Prosecution Service was cited as saying tonight it would continue to consider taking action against protesters who damaged genetically modified crops despite losing a major case for the second time in a year. Prosecutors were cited as saying they would treat all cases of alleged damage to GM fields on their merit and prosecute if they felt that such action was in the public interest.
The announcement came after eleven people accused of damaging a crop of genetically modified maize were acquitted by magistrates in Harwich, Essex. It was the latest in a series of high profile cases in which defendants accused of destroying genetically modified crops have been acquitted. Lord Melchett, executive director of Greenpeace, was one of 28 people cleared of criminal damage at Norwich Crown Court last September. Earlier this month charges of aggravated trespass were dropped against seven "grim reaper" protesters who cut down and trampled GM crops near Sherborne, Dorset.
But a spokeswoman for the CPS was quoted as saying, "We will continue to treat each case on its merits and prosecute if we feel it is right. People should not see this latest decision as a green light. People should not break the law." Greenpeace said the courts' decisions reflected public unease about GM crops and GM crop trials.
see also: the Independent's coverage http://news.independent.co.uk/uk/environment/story.jsp?story=80551