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Tuesday, Sept. 4, 2007 | Animal rights activist Rod Coronado spent most of the late 1990s in federal prison, serving a 57-month sentence for burning down a fur farm laboratory on the campus of Michigan State University.
In 2003, four years after his release from prison, Coronado made a controversial speech to a group of activists in San Diego. After the speech, according to court documents, a member of the audience asked Coronado how he built the incendiary device he used to destroy the fur farm in Michigan.
The answer Coronado gave could be about to send him back to federal prison. If federal prosecutors have their way, Coronado could end up spending more time in prison for talking about the Michigan State arson than he did for committing the arson itself.
In his answer, Coronado described how he built the Molotov cocktail-type device he used for the Michigan arson. Almost three years after he made the speech, he was charged under a seldom-used federal statute that prohibits individuals from teaching or demonstrating the making or use of an explosive device with the intent that passing on the information will lead to further crimes.
The case, which comes to trial in federal court in San Diego next week, is the latest phase of a three-year effort by federal prosecutors and investigators to bring charges in relation to a massive arson in University City that caused $50 million of damage and occurred the same day as Coronado’s speech.
A banner found at the scene of the arson read “If you build it, we will burn it — The ELFs are mad.” ELF is an acronym for the Earth Liberation Front, an extremist environmental group; Coronado was once the group’s spokesman.
In 2005, two local animal rights activists, Danae Kelley and David Agranoff, were jailed for several months for refusing to testify before a federal grand jury investigating the arson. Those activists were later freed and the grand jury has yet to bring any charges.
Coronado, who lives in Tucson, was in San Diego for a pre-trial hearing Friday. He said the charges that have been brought against him are a last-gasp effort by the government to justify several years of fruitless investigation of the arson.
“In lieu of capturing the responsible parties for the University City arson, the government is trying to silence someone who has given some breath to a movement they want to hurt,” Coronado said outside the court.
Federal prosecutors would not comment on the ongoing case.
The government’s case will essentially hinge on Coronado’s intent when he made the speech. Undercover investigators were at the speech and recorded it, but according to court documents, the investigator’s recorder cut out before the question and answer section of the lecture began. Therefore, exactly what was said about the Michigan State arson, and how Coronado said it, is in dispute.
Under a strict reading of the statute Coronado has been charged under, prosecutors must prove that when Coronado described how he made the incendiary device he intended his audience to go out and use that information to commit crime, said Gerald Singleton, one of Coronado’s attorneys.
But Singleton said he will ask the judge to instruct the jury to take a more narrow approach to the statute in Coronado’s case.
That approach is based on a 1969 Supreme Court decision, Brandenburg v. Ohio.
In Brandenburg, the court ruled that the government could only punish inflammatory speech if it was “directed to inciting and likely to incite imminent lawless action.” If the judge instructs the jury to follow this case, Singleton said, the jury would have to agree that Coronado intended to incite immediate lawless action from the group that gathered to hear him speak that night in Hillcrest.
Coronado said that group consisted mainly of middle-aged animal rights activists and young punk rockers — hardly the sort of crowd to go out and immediately start burning things down, he said.
Singleton said the narrower interpretation of the statute makes sense considering the fact that the information his client passed on to the crowd can be found easily and quickly online. A Google search for “How to make a Molotov cocktail” garnered 6,880 results in 0.37 seconds, including a page from the online encyclopedia Wikipedia that includes diagrams showing the making of a Molotov cocktail.
Singleton will have some help in winning over the judge and jury in the shape of J. Tony Serra, a battle-hardened veteran of civil rights law who once defended members of the Black Panthers.
Serra will be examining some of the witnesses and will be making the closing statement in Coronado’s trial, Singleton said.
The trial begins Sept. 10.
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