Activist tells Sonoma County jury he committed no crime; sought only to help animals
An animal activist who participated in two protests at poultry farms near Petaluma more than four years ago told a Sonoma County jury Thursday he had good intentions and believed he wasn’t committing a crime when he tried to rescue the chickens and ducks he believed were being mistreated.
Wayne Hsiung, who is representing himself, delivered his opening statements to the jury of eight women and four men in Sonoma County Superior Court in Santa Rosa. He is charged with two felony counts of trespassing and two felony counts of conspiracy.
If convicted as charged he could be sentenced to as much as three years and eight months in prison, according to the Sonoma County District Attorney’s Office.
The case, which is being overseen by Judge Laura Passaglia, stems from protests by animal activists that were held at two locations in Petaluma: Sunrise Farms on May 29, 2018, and Reichardt Duck Farm on June 3, 2019.
Hsiung said no one disagrees he joined the protests, and the prosecution will present video evidence provided by the activists. What most matters, he told jurors, is he was there to rescue animals.
“There was no bad intent, much less intent to commit a crime,” he said as around 15 of his supporters watched from the courtroom audience.
Prosecutors said protesters forced their way into the poultry facility during the 2018 incident and stole chickens under the guise of liberating them from allegedly harmful conditions. In 2019, the prosecution added, ducks were stolen and protesters chained themselves to the property.
Sonoma County Deputy District Attorney Robert Waner told jurors Hsiung “quite prominently” led the charge at the chicken farm and encouraged protesters at the duck farm.
Their efforts forced each location to shut down during the incidents.
Waner presented video footage shot by the activists that showed Hsiung speaking on the group’s behalf shortly after they all arrived at Sunrise Farms. In it, Hsiung explained that he and the other activists had a right to be there.
The group contended they believed the animals were being mistreated. Referencing California’s animal cruelty laws, they contended they had the right to rescue animals in distress.
Hsiung said property officials and law enforcement had agreed within minutes to escort the activists onto the property after hearing their arguments.
Waner told jurors Hsuing and his group did not have permission to be on the properties and zeroed in on footage that showed Sunrise Farms owners and staff urging them to leave.
Owners and representatives of the affected farms have rejected the activists’ claims, and farming industry officials have said Hsiung’s incursion onto these private farms raised serious security and safety concerns for their operations.
Among them was Sunrise Farms co-owner Michael Weber, who testified Thursday that his facility has thousands of chickens and they can be stressed if a large number of people suddenly show up.
Some of Hsiung’s supporters wiped away tears as Weber, a prosecution witness, explained the causes and commonality of poultry deaths, especially given population sizes.
He added that staff at his farm are cognizant of those issues and follow humane methods of treating or euthanizing the chickens or ducks when necessary.
“The last thing we want to do is put a bird down,” Weber said before testimony shifted to the events of May 29, 2018.
He estimated at least 200 protesters showed up that day, leaving him confused.
“I don’t know what’s going on, but I know it’s not anything that we would’ve expected,” he said of the moment he saw the crowd.
His testimony was cut short when court closed for the day Thursday and Passaglia told him to return Friday morning to continue his testimony.
Weber was the first of as many as 12 prosecution witnesses who are scheduled to testify during trial. .
Waner told jurors he expects his argument will take about two days before the defense calls in its witnesses for testimony.
The matter initially included a third demonstration at another chicken farm Sept. 29, 2018, and at least five other members of the group faced charges.
As proceedings stretched out over the past year, charges against other defendants were dismissed or resolved via plea deals.
On Sept. 8, for example, charges of trespassing and conspiracy were dismissed against Hsiung’s former co-defendant Cassandra King for unspecified reasons.
Most recently, former co-defendant Priya Sawhney reached a plea deal Sept. 21.
She pleaded no contest to two counts of trespassing and was ordered to perform 100 hours of community service through the Sonoma County Volunteer Center.
Supporters of the activists have rallied outside the courthouse in recent weeks whenever hearings took place to finalize motions or for other matters related to this week’s trial.
Hsiung told jurors Thursday the activists support transparency and their ultimate goal is to expose mistreatment of animals.
“You cannot fight a shadow with more shadows. You fight a shadow with light,” he said.
You can reach Staff Writer Colin Atagi at firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @colin_atagi