environmental activist released from prison on Thursday, less than a week after federal prosecutors disclosed they withheld key evidence in the 2008 trial that led to his conviction on "eco-terrorism" charges.
Eric McDavid’s lawyer. He is a civil rights attorney who specializes in cases dealing with police and FBI misconduct. He is also an advisory board member of the Civil Liberties Defense Center.
member of Sacramento Prisoner Support and also Eric McDavid’s partner.
In a Democracy Now! exclusive, we speak to environmental activist Eric McDavid, who has just been released from prison 10 years early after federal prosecutors acknowledged withholding key evidence about how he may have been entrapped by an FBI informant with whom he had fallen in love. In 2008, McDavid was sentenced to 19 years in prison for conspiring to bomb sites in California including the Nimbus Dam. Defense attorneys say he was entrapped by a teenage informant who went by the name "Anna" and supplied him with food, housing and bomb-making instructions, and pressured him into illegal activity. As part of a settlement reached in the case on Thursday, federal prosecutors acknowledged withholding key evidence, including an FBI request for the informant to undergo a lie-detector test. This damning detail about the government’s star witness was found in thousands of documents released after his trial, when his supporters filed a Freedom of Information Act request. In his first interview since his release, McDavid joins us from Sacramento along with his partner Jenny Esquivel, a member of the group Sacramento Prisoner Support. We are also joined by McDavid’s lawyer, Ben Rosenfeld, a civil rights attorney who specializes in cases dealing with police and FBI misconduct.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Just a week ago, our next guest was a federal prisoner, serving a 19-year sentence for "eco-terrorism" in what his supporters say was a case of FBI entrapment. Today, he’s a free man. In 2007, Eric McDavid was convicted of conspiring to bomb sites in California including the Nimbus Dam. But his attorneys say he was entrapped by a teenage informant who went by the name "Anna" and supplied him with food, housing and bomb-making instructions, and pressured him into illegal activity. Two others arrested in the plot testified against McDavid in a deal that led to lighter sentences.
AMY GOODMAN: For them. Well, as part of a settlement reached in the case on Thursday, federal prosecutors acknowledged withholding evidence in McDavid’s case, including an FBI request for the informant to undergo a lie-detector test. This damning detail about the government’s star witness was found in thousands of documents released after his trial, when his supporters filed a Freedom of Information Act request. During a hearing, federal judge Morrison England demanded to know how the prosecution failed to give potentially exculpatory evidence to the defense, saying, quote, "This is huge. This is something that needs to be dealt with," the judge said. McDavid pleaded guilty to a conspiracy charge with a maximum five-year sentence. He had already served nine years in prison, and he was released.
Eric McDavid now joins us from Sacramento for his first interview since his release. With him, his partner Jenny Esquivel, a member of the group Sacramento Prisoner Support. And in San Francisco, we’re joined by Ben Rosenfeld, McDavid’s lawyer. He is a civil rights attorney who specializes in cases dealing with police and FBI misconduct. He’s also an advisory board member of the Civil Liberties Defense Center.
We welcome you all to Democracy Now! Eric, let’s begin with you. How does it feel to be free?
ERIC McDAVID: There is no definition to that. There’s no way to express that with, I don’t think, any language, definitely not the English language.
AMY GOODMAN: Explain what it is—
ERIC McDAVID: But it’s definitely beautiful to be with my family.
AMY GOODMAN: Explain what—how critical the information was that had you released.
ERIC McDAVID: I think that’s pretty obvious. And to tell you the truth, I think Ben could address that with a lot more clarity.
AMY GOODMAN: OK, Ben Rosenfeld in San Francisco, can you talk about what has taken place in this case? I mean, here you have Eric McDavid, who was supposed to serve 19 years in prison. He’s being released a decade early. Why?
BEN ROSENFELD: Eleven years early, actually. And this was about as egregious a case of entrapment as I’ve seen in my entire legal career. And I should point out, too, that what they’ve done to Eric, they visit a thousandfold on Muslims in this country, so it’s very important that we raise public awareness about this.
But in Eric’s case, in particular, a number of FOIA documents were turned over after the case was long concluded. And supporters started going through those documents, and they went, "Aha, this is stuff that should have been turned over to the defense that would have been absolutely critical to his defense." It included evidence that the government had called urgently for a lie-detector examination of their informant and then inexplicably canceled it. There are indications that letters of a romantic nature that they had withheld from the defense were included in their files. But even the FOIA was the tip of the iceberg, because it pointed to or hinted at some of those documents, but didn’t include them. And we—as his lawyers, we incorporated that into his habeas claim, and the court showed interest in that. And ultimately, that set the table for his release, when the government was forced to admit that they had in fact withheld documents that should have been turned over to the defense.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Ben Rosenfeld, the informant in this case is a critical part of what happened here. In 2008, Elle magazine featured an article about how the FBI paid a young woman, known as "Anna," to befriend activists and pressure them into illegal activity. It describes in detail her relationship with Eric McDavid and her role in the case against him. In an interview for the piece, Anna says when the group planned to blow up the Nimbus Dam, her role was to track down bomb recipes. She said, quote, "I go to the FBI with this and they said, Well, of course we’re not going to give you bomb recipes that actually work. So they gave me about half a dozen recipes that were all missing components." Could you talk about the role of Anna? Because she supposedly was involved in gathering evidence as an informant against many activists in the environmental movement.
BEN ROSENFELD: Well, thank you. I want to point out first, there was never any plan to blow up the Nimbus Dam. There was actually never any plan to do anything. There was a lot of talk. And whatever plans there were, were 100 percent the FBI’s and Anna’s. I mean, this is a clear-cut case of entrapment. It’s a case of the government creating and then solving its own so-called conspiracy. The Nimbus Dam, if there was any agreement among the co-defendants in this case, it was specifically not to blow up the Nimbus Dam.
But, yes, Anna entrapped them by literally herding them together from around the country, by plying them with the matériel they needed, by sheltering them and providing them food and transportation, and literally gathering them back together and trying to keep them interested in her plans and her schemes. And each of them, for their own reasons, was trying to please and placate her. It was a lot of talk. It was no action. Nothing was ever done. Nothing was ever agreed upon. Certainly, nothing was ever blown up.
AMY GOODMAN: So, if you could talk about the case, Jenny, why you got involved, with Sacramento Prisoner Support, Jenny Esquivel, and how you applied for this information under the Freedom of Information Act?
JENNY ESQUIVEL: Sure. I came to Sacramento immediately after Eric was arrested. He and I were partners right before he got arrested. And so, I came here just to be closer to him and do support work for him, and that’s how I originally got involved in Sacramento Prisoner Support.
As far as the FOIA goes, you know, Mark Reichel, Eric’s original attorney for trial, filed a FOIA request before Eric’s trial in 2007. And at the time, the FBI responded, saying that they had no records responsive to our request, which was interesting. Also, clearly, it was a lie, as at that time we had thousands of pages of discovery that the government had turned over to us for trial. So, we were pretty busy, obviously, at that point in time with trial, also trying to support Eric while he was on hunger strike, trying to get vegan food at the Sacramento County Main Jail. And so, we just didn’t really have time to follow through on that or pursue it, even though we knew that they clearly did have records responsive to our request. So, after Eric was convicted and sentenced in 2008, we filed another Freedom of Information Act request, and about a year and a half later, we started finally receiving records that were responsive to that request. And at that time, we received three or four different packages of documents equaling about 2,500 pages. One other interesting thing about that, though, is that the government admitted to not handing over almost 900 more pages of information. And we still haven’t seen those documents. We still don’t know what’s in those documents, and perhaps, unfortunately, never will.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Eric McDavid, can you talk about your reaction when you discovered that this Anna, the informant, was an informant and had been taping conversations, the very person who was trying to instigate activity among you and other activists? And your reaction to her testimony in court?
ERIC McDAVID: Well, initially, to your first question, it was as I was sitting on the back of the car and I heard the locks click all the way around on the automatic lock of the vehicle that she was sitting in, while she was talking on the phone, as about eight—I don’t know, eight to 10 different vehicles pulled screeching up in front of me with JTTF hopping out, AR-15s, everybody all ready to roll. So, I mean, that’s—that was the first when it clicked. So it wasn’t—I had a whole bunch on my mind at the time, so it wasn’t really a predominant or a huge thought.
During trial, that part, after—because I had read a whole bunch of the discovery, and we’d gone over transcripts and everything. And it was difficult to see, definitely, but—I don’t know. It was definitely hard to see. I mean, that part was definitely one of the more harder rides of the whole trial.
AMY GOODMAN: This is an excerpt—
ERIC McDAVID: After—
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to an excerpt of an exchange between, well, the woman who calls herself Anna—and for folks who are listening on the radio, we’re also showing pictures of her; she was featured, as we said, in Elle magazine—the exchange between Anna and Eric McDavid and another activist, Lauren Weiner, when they were in the cabin allegedly planning to bomb the Nimbus Dam. Anna says, "Tomorrow, what are we planning on doing tomorrow? Are we still planning on doing anything tomorrow? Or should I just stop talking about plans?" Eric McDavid says, "Hmmm." Weiner says, "I would love it if you stopped talking." Anna says, "I would love it if you guys followed a plan! How about that!" Ben Rosenfeld, what is the significance of this back-and-forth?
BEN ROSENFELD: The significance of that back-and-forth is that it really illustrates 100 percent a case of egregious and grotesque entrapment by the government. Anna literally called them names and threw fits when they didn’t show enough enthusiasm for her plans. And I think that excerpt illustrates that perfectly.
You know, for—and—and I would also point out that right now the government wants to skate away on the claim that this was purely a mistake or inadvertent, on the back of a press office statement. And whether it was a mistake or it was malfeasance or it was malevolence to withhold these documents, they really owe it to Eric, and they owe it to the public, to come up with a much more detailed explanation about how this could have happened. I mean, you know, the deck is completely stacked in their favor. I mean, the job of the defense, in essence, is to go fishing in their deck to ask, "Do you have anything?" And if you’re told they don’t have anything, you’re stuck with that answer, and sometimes for a long time and sometimes forever—in Eric’s case, for nine years of wrongful incarceration.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But, Ben, in this situation where prosecutors clearly, deliberately withhold evidence, possibly exculpatory evidence—I’ve seen so many of these cases over the years—isn’t it the responsibility, to some degree, of the judge to insist that an investigation be conducted, because the trial itself was so tainted as a result of these actions of the prosecutors?
BEN ROSENFELD: We’d certainly like to see the judge do that. We’d like to see the judiciary take that up. And there’s some indications by Ninth Circuit judges that they are very concerned about a potential epidemic of Brady violations. Brady is the Supreme Court case that speaks to the withholding of documents. I would point out, too, that from a legal standpoint it doesn’t matter whether it was inadvertent or deliberate. If they withheld documents which were helpful to the defense—in this case, documents showing that there was a romantic interest by Eric, a correspondence between Eric and Anna that the prosecutors held back, and a reciprocation by Anna—that’s good enough to satisfy that constitutional standard and to win release. It should be, but it’s very rare that it happens. And you can see that it takes years and years and years to correct a mistake which should have been corrected a long time ago. And there are a lot of people behind bars who may never get that chance.
AMY GOODMAN: The 2008 Elle article about the Eric McDavid case quotes a juror named Diane Bennett, who was tracked down by the reporter after the trial. Bennett said, quote, "I’ve been bothered by this ever since that day. ... [T]he FBI was an embarrassment. ... I hope he gets a new trial. I’m not happy with the one he got." Diane Bennett added, the foreman had "teared up" when he delivered the guilty verdict. She said the judge’s instructions were confusing, but, quote, "People were tired. ... We wanted to go home." Can you talk about the significance of this, Ben Rosenfeld?
BEN ROSENFELD: Well, and she said that so long ago, and it just goes to show how long you can live in this Kafkaesque nightmare, where the government has engaged in total misconduct and the court, perhaps, has abdicated a responsibility to oversee this or maybe is hoodwinked along with the defense because of the overly trusting role and excessive trust that it places sometimes in the government and the prosecutor. I mean, in court on January 8th, the day that Eric walked free, I’ve never seen so many fireworks. And the judge really grilled the prosecutors, and he showed a lot of—a lot of personal pique and interest in getting to the bottom of this. And I really hope that he or somebody does follow up.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you—could you explain the deal that was struck at the end, though?
BEN ROSENFELD: Yeah. You know, Eric had to plead to a simple or general conspiracy count with a maximum penalty of five years. The judge vacated the original conviction and sentence of 20 years on a different charge. So the government extracts its pound of flesh. That’s probably as much justice as you’re going to get out of the Department of Just—Injustice in a case like this. Eric had to waive all civil claims, going forward.
But he’s here now, and we’re extremely grateful for that and for everybody that made that possible and, I will say, too, the team of U.S. attorneys at the end of the case, who behaved extremely honorably and professionally in taking a fresh look at this and enabling that to happen, too. But it took a collaboration of a lot of people to end this nightmare. And there are a lot of people left in prison who are the victims of this kind of government malfeasance also, and there needs to be an inquiry.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Eric, could you talk, in the about a minute and a half we have left, of your time in prison? Did you expect at some point to be able to get out and to have this nightmare behind you?
ERIC McDAVID: I had a buddy at the medium-security prison where I was first held who always challenged me in keeping my mind open and keeping my heart open and making sure that I was ready for anything. And given the intensity of that environment, it definitely helped me to adapt to that whole situation. But he was always—every other week or every other day, he’d hit me up: "You ready to go home? You ready to go home?" I’m like, "Yes, I’m ready to go home." And he’s like, "All right, so here’s the situation how you’re going to go home. Tell me how you’re going to do it." And so, that part was always kept alive. And the amount of support that I got from folks has just—it’s blown my heart open every day and every moment that I’ve been—that I was away from my friends and family and my loved ones.
AMY GOODMAN: And, Eric, did you meet other people behind bars who you felt were entrapped like you were?
ERIC McDAVID: There is so many people that either are entrapped in the same way or pressured into taking a sentence because they’re threatened with 60, 70 years of prison, and they have to do the 15, or they have to do the 17, or even 20, because otherwise they’re going to spend the rest of their life back there. That was time and time again.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Eric McDavid, we want to thank you for being with us. Congratulations on your release. He was released from prison Thursday, less than a week after federal prosecutors [acknowledged withholding] key evidence in the 2008 trial that led to his conviction on eco-terrorism charges. Jenny Esquivel, member of the Sacramento Prisoner Support, also Eric McDavid’s partner. And thanks to Ben Rosenfeld, joining us from San Francisco, the civil rights attorney who specializes in cases dealing with police and FBI misconduct, the attorney for Eric McDavid.