More than 70 animal rights activists stood outside a courtroom in St. George, Utah on Tuesday holding up a giant image of Utah Attorney Gen. Sean Reyes. A word bubble hovered above his head saying “I cover up animal cruelty.”
The group had gathered in support of whistleblowers Wayne Hsiung and Paul Darwin Picklesimer of Direct Action Everywhere, or DxE, a global network of activists working to achieve revolutionary social and political change for animals in one generation. Both currently face felony burglary and theft charges that could amount to over 10 years in prison.
In March 2017 Hsiung, Picklesimer and three other DxE investigators infiltrated Smithfield-owned Circle Four Farms in Utah to document the conditions of its pregnant pigs. They were greeted with “nightmarish cruelty,” which included piles of dead piglets covered in feces and pregnant pigs crammed inside cages barely larger than their bodies.
Despite Smithfield announcing that it had shifted from confining pregnant pigs in gestation crates in January of that year, DxE investigators documented sows in confinement. The footage, dubbed Operation Deathstar, was used in 2021 as evidence by the Humane Society of the United States in its misrepresentation lawsuit against Smithfield.
During the Circle Four Farms investigation, the activists rescued two sick piglets, which were named Lily and Lizzie and brought to animal sanctuaries. Their rescue triggered a multistate search by federal law enforcement and led to FBI raids at the animal sanctuaries that took in the piglets. A year after the investigation, the DxE investigators were hit with felony charges.
Four of the defendants accepted plea deals, which required that they consent to three years of probation and sign a gag order that required “no social media, website or other online criticism or derision of Smithfield on personal or otherwise” be posted by the defendants. Hsiung and Picklesimer did not accept the prosecutor’s offer and their trial began Oct. 3.
Activists have flocked to Utah to support them during the trial, which began this week. Supporters have marched through St. George to raise awareness, and two DxE members even disrupted an NFL Monday Night Football game, running across the field with a smoke flair. They were arrested and have since been released from police custody.
The judge in this criminal trial, Jeffrey Wilcox, has only allowed a handful of DxE supporters in the courtroom at one time, so activists have been gathering outside the court holding signs like “stop covering up animal cruelty” and “right to rescue.” Some activists were even told by county sheriffs that they could not be on the same side of the street as the courthouse and were ordered to move.
Journalists covering the trial, such as Marina Bolotnikova, have voiced their concern over the court’s lack of transparency regarding the trial. Bolotnikova, who gained the court’s permission to record the trial remotely via video conferencing, had her permission revoked a few days before the trial. The court has also allegedly removed the ability to register for remote web access to the trial, while simultaneously revoking access to those who already signed up.
Journalists and activists have also raised transparency issues over the withholding of evidence. Despite DxE having video of the rescue, depicting the condition of the piglets, the prosecution requested that the footage not be shown. The judge agreed and has withheld the footage, claiming that it could elicit an emotional response from the jury.
“The most direct and extensive evidence of the alleged crimes has been barred from trial because it would be too disturbing to jurors,” Bolotnikova said. “This certainly says a lot about how far removed the laws being tried here are from a regular person’s common-sense view of right and wrong.”
According to science writer and ecologist Spencer Roberts, the withholding of evidence is “blatant corruption.” Roberts further argued that “there’s simply no way to justify censoring video of the act that jurors are supposed to evaluate whether to call a crime. What evidence could be more relevant to the case than a video of the alleged crime?”
Meanwhile, activists have also raised the issue of a potential of conflict of interest in the case, alleging that there is evidence of collusion between the prosecution and Smithfield. Public records uncovered by The Intercept show that the prosecutors involved in the case have fiscal connections with Smithfield and have received funding from the company and even represented them previously.
Specifically, Bolotnikova contends that these public records show that there are “potential financial ties, including Smithfield’s donations to the Republican Attorneys General Association and a small donation directly to Sean Reyes.” Additionally, she explained that one of the case’s prosecutors, Janise Macanas, currently works for Reyes in the Utah AG’s office.
Lead DxE organizer Almira Tanner has commented on this alleged corruption, contending that “Utah Attorney Gen. Sean Reyes has received campaign contributions from Smithfield Foods … It’s also absurd to think that Smithfield Foods has the power to mobilize the FBI across state lines searching for two missing piglets, which the company valued at under $100.”
The irony, which activists are quick to highlight, is that while the piglets themselves were relatively valueless to the company, they are now being weaponized to target activists who challenge industrial agriculture.
Utah State Veterinarian Dean Taylor testified that each piglet rescued was valued at only $42.20 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Another witness, Richard Topham, a worker at the Circle Four Farms, stated that he did not realize that the piglets were gone until months later, when he saw the DxE investigation video on Facebook.
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Hsiung, representing himself, argued in court that sick piglets are often discarded by the industry, with more than 15 percent not making it to adolescence. In short, according to Hsiung, the company is alleging theft of a product they would have otherwise considered worthless.
Nevertheless, the felony theft statute in Utah specifies that theft becomes a felony — no matter its commercial value — if the property taken are animals raised for commercial purposes. Additionally, defendants are subject to an enhanced penalty if the offense is intended to impede, obstruct or interfere with the operation of a factory farm. Hsiung continues to stand behind his actions and has found strength in the outpouring of support he has received while facing potential conviction and imprisonment. Right before the trial began, he tweeted: “I received some great advice this week, on how to handle hardship, that I want to share with all of you: Remember love.”
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