Yesterday, environmental activist Marie Mason was sentence to twenty-one years and ten months in prison for her role in an Earth Liberation Front (ELF) arson at Michigan State University (MSU) in 1999. Mason was also ordered to pay $4.1 million in restitution. The arson was undertaken to protest the school’s involvement in genetically modified research that was in part funded by Monsanto.
Prosecutors in the case hope that Mason’s sentence will send a clear message:
“If in this country someone is strongly committed to a cause, you’ve got all kinds of legal ways to pursue that cause, but if you think because you feel strongly about something, you’re allowed to go commit crimes of violence, you’re wrong.”
Mason’s lawyer said that the sentence shocking:
“Frankly I’m shocked. The sentence I think is grossly out of proportion to any sentence that’s ever been imposed anywhere in the country.”
Longest Green Scare Sentence
Marie Mason’s sentence is the longest received by an environmental activist for arson. Stan Meyerhoff, who was convicted of ELF arsons causing over $30 million in damages, received thirteen years in prison. The MSU arson cost an estimated $1 million in damages.
The Earth Liberation Front Press Office–an aboveground organization that publicizes ELF actions–said:
“The sentence imposed on Marie Mason today by Judge Maloney was for nonviolent crimes against property. Currently, the average federal sentence for murder is 19 years, nearly three years less than given to Marie Mason today for nonviolent property crimes. Two things are clear from this decision. First, the U.S. government cares more about the property of corporations and institutions involved in environmental destruction than they value human life. Second, since the 22 year sentence given to Marie Mason is three years above the average federal sentence for murder, it constitutes cruel and unusual punishment under the 8th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.”
Will Potter–who writes about the “Green Scare” at the excellent blog GreenIsTheNewRed.com–pointed out that earlier this week, the FBI applauded sentences of 10 to 12 years for men who carried out racist attacks against African-Americans in response to Barack Obama’s elections.
By contrast, Mason received 21 years for a non-violent crime that did not physically harm anyone.
FBI Intimidates Supporters
Before her sentencing, federal prosecutors sought a twenty-year sentence. According to the press, part of the justification for seeking this sentence was the fact that Mason had become a “movement heroine”. Prosecutors said that Mason, “has become a figure of admiration to that community, a portion of whose membership continues to bully, threaten and destroy.” Specifically, they cited the Internet presence of Marie Mason’s support group as a reason for asking for such a lengthy sentence.
In advance the sentencing, the FBI sent out a press release to local media warning that police were on high alert for radical protestors. According to a story on Lansing’s WLNS:
“Lansing authorities are on high alert as radical environmental protestors are expected to show up for the sentencing of a woman who admitted to starting a fire at Michigan State University over 9 years ago. According to the Lansing Police Department, the FBI and US Marshals on hand to handle security at the Lansing federal courthouse.
They expect members of the eco-terrorist groups, the Earth Liberation Front and Animal Liberation Front to gather and protest.”
Of course, the FBI knows that members of the ELF and ALF would not gather to protest as such activists operate in a clandestine manner. Instead, the release was meant as another way to discourage and criminalize supporters.
Other Sentences in the Case
Two others who were indicted and charged with aiding the MSU arson–Aren Burthwick and Stephanie Fultz–were also sentenced yesterday. They were both charged with assisting in a cover-up related to the case and failing to report the arson to authorities. Burthwick was sentenced to fourteen months in prison, one year supervised release, and a $2,000 fine. Fultz received two years of probation and one-hundred hours of community service.
Last year, Marie Mason’s former husband, Frank Ambrose, was sentenced to nine years for his role in the arson. Ambrose–who actually lit the fire in the MSU arson–received a lesser sentence because he was an essential government informant in this and other cases. In exchange for his cooperation, the government pursued a lesser sentence.