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Jury Weighs Police Abuse Case; Did Calif. Cops Abuse Logging Protesters by Swabbing Pepper Spray in Eyes?

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By David Kravets, The Associated Press

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) -- A federal jury began deliberating Tuesday whether police went too far by swabbing pepper spray in the eyes of bound and nonviolent Northern California logging protesters.

The two-week trial ended after lawyers for the activists and the Humboldt County Sheriff's Department and other defendants summed up their case to the eight jurors.

However, later Tuesday, jurors sent a note to the judge saying they were "adamantly opposed, and resolution does not seem likely." U.S. District Judge Susan Illston told them to return Wednesday. An initial trial in 1998 ended with a deadlocked jury.

Tony Serra, representing eight activists who allege their constitutional rights to be free from unreasonable force were violated in 1997, said police officers treated them like "wild beasts."

"It is never necessary to inflict violence on nonviolent people," he told the jury.

Nancy Delaney, the attorney for the officers, said authorities did not wish to use power tools to unbind the protesters who had shackled themselves together, fearing that it could have "severed digits." She said they swabbed pepper spray in an effort to get them to unlock their shackles and be removed from private property.

"The pepper spray is preferable and poses less risk of injury," she said in her closing remarks in front of a gallery full of mostly those supporting the activists.

She said the department had used power tools dozens of times to unlock logging protesters, but felt it was too dangerous to do so this time.

Nationwide broadcast images of Humboldt County sheriff's deputies and Eureka police officers daubing pepper spray directly into the eyes of writhing and screaming young demonstrators linked with steel pipes outraged television viewers across the nation in the fall of 1997.

At issue now -- as in the 1998 trial -- is whether police use of the pepper spray was abusive and illegal or whether it was a legitimate law enforcement activity.

The protesters who filed the lawsuit argue the pepper spray was used to illegally punish and intimidate them for chaining themselves together and making it difficult for the police to arrest them. They seek unspecified damages.

A deadlocked jury couldn't decide the case after an initial trial six years ago and the judge on that case later tossed it out.

Since then, the case has slowly wound its way through the legal system, ultimately reaching the U.S. Supreme Court. In a rare action, an appeals court removed the original judge from the case because of allegations of bias and ordered a new trial.

With a new judge and fresh jury, the incidents were replayed here in open court, both in testimony and with taped visuals taken at the scene.

"It felt like acid eating into my eyes," Spring Lundberg, 24, testified last week.

In the fall of 1997, tensions were high on the Northern California coast when the dominant lumber company began increasing its harvest of ancient redwood trees.

Demonstrators from across the country had made their annual trek to sparsely populated Humboldt County, where the 150-year-old timber industry is deeply rooted in the region's economy, to protest the tree-cutting practices of Pacific Lumber Co.

The protesters used more tactics designed to thwart and frustrate police trying to remove them by chaining themselves to trees or linking themselves together with steel tubes.

Looking for alternative ways to force protesters to unlock their hands and arms from pipes police otherwise had to cut off with power tools, the Humboldt County Sheriff's Department decided to use pepper spray, an eye and throat irritant designed for self defense.

"I'm never happy seeing violence applied in any form, and the use of force is never pleasant," Former Humboldt County Sheriff Dennis Lewis testified Monday.

On three separate occasions in September and October 1997, sheriff's deputies and the Eureka Police Department warned protesters chained together at a harvest site, in the local congressman's office and in Pacific Lumber's office that they would be pepper sprayed unless they unlocked themselves from the metal pipes. Eight of the nine activists targeted with pepper spray sued.

The case is Lundberg v. Humboldt County, 97-3989.

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