Wegmans Cruelty: An Unofficial Blog

This is an unofficial blog and informational archive related to the WEGMANSCRUELTY film and resulting campaign.

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Thursday, May 04, 2006

Judge turns down defense of justification in egg trial

Thursday, May 04, 2006
By JIM MILLER

Finger Lakes Times


LYONS — When animal rights activists entered Wegmans’ Wolcott egg farm in 2004, they saw rodents scampering around and manure-covered chickens so sick they needed immediate rescue, Adam Durand said when he testified Wednesday at his burglary trial in Wayne County Court.

Closing arguments were scheduled for this morning. Durand, president of the Rochester-based group Compassionate Consumers, faces up to seven years in prison if jurors decide he broke the law when he entered the farm and helped remove 11 chickens without Wegmans’ permission.

Two other members of the group — Melanie Ippolito and Megan Coscrove — have already pleaded guilty to lesser charges.

Defense Attorney Leonard Egert yesterday questioned a state police investigator and the farm’s production manager about conditions at the farm and the value of the chickens taken. And he asked the judge to instruct the jury on the defense of justification, a legal principle allowing someone to take an otherwise-illegal action to avoid imminent injury to self or others.

The judge refused that request — made while the jury was out to lunch — and also barred testimony about dead chickens, testimony from veterinarians and photographs of manure falling from cage to cage.

But jurors did see some of the film that Durand said he shot inside the farm, including clips of rodents, chickens with flies crawling over them and chickens submerged in what Durand described as a manure pit.

Wegmans’ farm manager said he could not be sure all the footage had been shot at the Wolcott farm. But he said farm employees regularly check for hens trapped in the manure pits or stuck in their cages and suggested that one clip — which seemed to show a hen with its neck stuck in a cage — might instead show a sick or dying hen lying down.

Under cross-examination, Durand acknowledged that he and the other activists entered the farm three times without Wegmans’ permission and took the chickens, although he denied handling them himself.

He is charged with three counts of third-degree burglary, three counts of petty larceny, three counts of third-degree criminal trespass and one count of fourth-degree criminal mischief. To convict him on the burglary counts — felonies and the most serious of the charges — District Attorney Richard Healy must prove Durand entered the farm with the intent to take the chickens.

Durand acknowledged that the activists brought pillowcases, a cardboard box and cat carriers with them but said they came to the farm to make a documentary about it, not to steal property.

“They brought a lot of things to be prepared,” Egert said after the trial had adjourned for the day.

On the stand, Durand described several of the birds he said the activists had taken.

“In every case, they were sick and dying, and there was just this feeling they deserved veterinary care,” he said.

Egert had hoped to present testimony from a vet who examined some of the chickens and the necropsy reports of two chickens that died after being taken from the farm, he told the judge when the jury had left the courtroom. But Healy objected to such evidence and the judge refused to allow it.

Healy said he would not object to the video evidence Egert played during Durand’s testimony if the audio was left out. Judge Dennis Kehoe said he would allow the tape, which he called irrelevant, only because Healy had agreed to it.

Durand provided his own narration.

“This is on the layer level of shed 14 at Wegmans’ egg facility,” he said. “This hen is covered in flies in the manure pit.”

The prosecution accused Durand of breaking into the farm, but Durand said the activists had not done so. They walked up to hen house 14, the closest hen house to the road, and found a way in through a vent in the first corner of the building they looked at, he said.

“Did you cut those wires [covering the vent]?” Egert asked him.

“No, I did not,” Durand replied. “We simply just climbed right through this hole. That was all it took.”

On cross-examination, Healy asked Durand if he was claiming that the first place the activists looked happened to be the way in.

Durand said he was and that they would have left if they hadn’t spotted the opening.

“We actually agreed that we would not damage any property at Wegmans’ egg farm,” he said.

Once inside, they saw chickens in need of help and eventually decided to “rescue” them, Durand said. He acknowledged that the chickens did not belong to them but said they did not know anything about the legality of taking them.

They considered it an emergency, he said.

Healy asked if the birds had become agitated when the activists entered the hen house and whether that agitation could have been what caused them to get their heads stuck in the cages.

“I don’t know whether or not that’s possible,” Durand said.

Healy asked about the cat carriers, but Durand said the other activists had brought them.

Durand was the only witness the defense called, but Healy had earlier called two witnesses: State Police Investigator Frank D’Aurizio and Andrew J. Wadsworth, production manager at the egg farm and grandson of the man who founded in it 1967.

D’Aurizio investigated the animal cruelty allegations made against the farm after someone sent part of Durand’s footage to Healy, and he later investigated the activists when farm employees found the opening in the vent.

D’Aurizio said he inspected the farm — hen house 14 was by then no longer in use — reviewed outside audits of its practices and concluded with Healy that there was no basis for animal cruelty charges.

“So you didn’t feel the conditions were neglectful?” Egert asked him.

D’Aurizio said he did not.

Egert then played part of Durand’s video, which appeared to show a chicken in a manure pit.

“You don’t consider that neglect?” Egert asked.

“I believe there has to be some intent ... for there to be a crime,” D’Aurizio said.

“The question was, did you feel that to be neglectful?” Egert asked.

“Yes,” D’Aurizio replied.

Wadsworth told the jury that farm employees work hard to care for their 700,000 chickens. Hens do sometimes get stuck in cages or get into the manure pit below them, he said, but employees check every day and either free animals or return them to their cages. During cross-examination, he said one person took care of the 80,000 chickens in hen house 14.

When shown part of Durand’s tape, he said that while one scene showed part of a farm building, he could neither identify the specific chickens shown in Durand’s video and pictures nor deny that they had come from the Wolcott farm.

Egert asked about the hens’ value, which Wadsworth put at about $2.80 each. Hens too old or sick to lay eggs are euthanized through clavicle dislocation, he said.

“Is that like neck-wringing?” Egert asked — a remark the judge ordered stricken from the record.

Egert also asked if workers wore gloves to prevent transmission of diseases to the animals.

Wadsworth said they did. Egert then prepared to play a tape and asked Wadsworth the question again.

“[For] workers it’s optional,” Wadsworth said. “I was referring to visitors.”

Egert then played a tape of a gloveless Wadsworth handling a chicken.

After Healy had rested his case and the jurors had left for lunch, Egert asked the judge to dismiss all charges or allow the justification defense. Kehoe declined to dismiss the case and said he could not find sufficient legal precedent for the defense.

Egert said afterward that such a defense had been an important part of his case.

“I think at least the jury should be able to hear it,” he said.

• • •

jmiller@fltimes.com

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