Two San Diego activists were thrown in jail Tuesday afternoon, held in contempt of court after they refused to testify before a federal grand jury. Judge Irma Gonzalez ordered that David Agranoff and Danae Kelley be held without bail, said Nik Hensey, spokesperson for the activists. A third activist, Michael Cardenas, was dismissed. It was not clear at press time why.
Last month, at least 10 local activists believed to have attended a talk by animal-rights activist Rod Coronado were subpoenaed to testify before the grand jury. Federal prosecutors have since named Coronado as the target of an investigation into a 2003 arson fire that destroyed an unfinished La Jolla apartment complex.
The fire, which Coronado has denied involvement with, was set in the early-morning hours on the same day he was scheduled to appear at the San Diego LGBT Center. Three of those subpoenaed-Cardenas, Agranoff and Kelley-refused to answer prosecutors' questions. The questions, they said, focused on whether they attended the talk and who else was there.
Two weeks ago, Gonzalez granted the trio immunity from prosecution if they agreed to cooperate with prosecutors. The three again declined to testify, citing their First Amendment right to free speech and free association.
Early Tuesday morning, Agranoff, Cardenas and Kelley gathered with supporters before the court hearing at which the judge was to decide whether prosecutors' questions indeed violated their rights or whether to send the three to jail for contempt.
"We are going in to take a stand on the First Amendment," Agranoff told CityBeat. "I feel we have a clear-cut case.
"Whether the government sees that is another issue," he said.
The activists face an 18-month jail term, said Hensey. The jail term expires with the rotation of the grand jury. In a statement posted on the San Diego Independent Media Center website, Cardenas said that as far as he knows, there's little legal precedent for a witness to argue the First Amendment before a grand jury judge, even after that witness has been granted immunity.
"The general assumption is that [the FBI is] trying to create a web of information on who knows who for purposes beyond just this particular arsonist issue," said Martin Eder, who heads the group Activist San Diego. "There is a community of radical youth and they are doing everything possible to throw a cold chill on these folks."
Activists reiterated their belief that the grand jury was on a fishing expedition. "The FBI have said that their goal is to disrupt the environmental and animal-rights movements," said Agranoff. "The way they are trying to do that is to silence one of our most courageous leaders, Rod Coronado. They are trying to use us to get at Rod. We are not going to help them disrupt and dismantle the movement."
The Tuesday hearing was closed to the public, but attorneys for the three said later that they plan to appeal the judge's ruling.All of the activists maintain that Coronado is innocent. Coronado has said he was in Tucson when the La Jolla fire broke out. The Environmental Liberation Front (ELF) claimed responsibility for the fire but despite a two-year investigation and a $100,000 reward, there have been no arrests in the case.